January 17, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:09 PM


Chick Lit May Be Hazardous to Your Self-Esteem : New research suggests novels in which characters agonize about their bodies lead female readers to worry about their own weight. (Tom Jacobs, 1/16/13, Pacific Standard)

As co-authors Melissa Kaminski and Robert Magee note, previous research has found a strong link between images of thin women in magazines and movies and low body esteem on the part of female readers and viewers. This is a problem because dissatisfaction with one's shape can lead to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

The researchers decided to explore whether the depiction of female characters in popular novels would have the same impact. So they turned to the world of "chick lit," that popular genre that emerged in the 1990s and typically focuses on female characters and their "struggles with weight, dating and successful careers." Bridget Jones' Diary is one popular example.
Kaminski and Magee took 3,200-word excerpts from two such novels and manipulated them in terms of the central character's weight, and her feelings about her body. The author's voice was retained, but references to the heroine's height and clothes sizes were changed, as were the comments she makes to herself and others reflecting her bodily self-esteem.

One-hundred-and-fifty-nine female participants (median age just under 20) read one of these altered texts and then answered questions about their own weight and sexual attractiveness. The results suggest a "nuanced pattern of effects for chick lit," the authors write.

Women who read a narrative featuring an underweight protagonist were not more likely to regard themselves as overweight. However, compared to those who read about an average-weight or overweight woman, they were less likely to view themselves as sexually attractive.

On the other hand, those who read a version of a story in which the central character expressed negative thoughts about her body "were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition," the researchers report.

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


Awaiting a New Darwin : a review of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel (H. Allen Orr, 2/07/13, NY Review of Books)

In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem "is not just a local problem" but "invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history." If what he calls "materialist naturalism" or just "materialism" can't explain consciousness, then it can't fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can't explain life, then it can't fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It's a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.

As Nagel makes clear in the subtitle of Mind and Cosmos, part of what he thinks must be reconceived is our reigning theory of evolutionary biology, neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism maintains, or at least implies, that the origin and history of life can be explained by materialist means. Once the first life arose on earth, the fate of the resulting evolutionary lineage was, neo-Darwinists argued, shaped by a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Biological types that survive or reproduce better than others will ultimately replace those others. While natural selection ensures that species constantly adapt to the changing environments around them, the process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any goal. This view, Nagel tells us, is "almost certainly false."

Before creationists grow too excited, it's important to see what Nagel is not claiming. He is not claiming that life is six thousand years old, that it did not evolve, or that natural selection played no part in this evolution. He believes that life has a long evolutionary history and that natural selection had a part in it. And while he does believe that intelligent design creationists have asked some incisive questions, Nagel rejects their answers. Indeed he is an atheist. Instead Nagel's view is that neo-Darwinism, and in fact the whole materialist view elaborated by science since the seventeenth century, is radically incomplete. The materialist laws of nature must, he says, be supplemented by something else if we are to fold ourselves and our minds fully into our science.

There's a name for that set of beliefs: creationism.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:10 PM


Software developer Bob outsources own job and whiles away shifts on cat videos : Verizon's hunt for firm's mysterious hacker exposes 'top worker' at firm who let Chinese consultants log on to do his daily work (Caroline Davies, 1/17/13, guardian.co.uk)

When a routine security check by a US-based company showed someone was repeatedly logging on to their computer system from China, it naturally sent alarm bells ringing. Hackers were suspected and telecoms experts were called in.

It was only after a thorough investigation that it was revealed that the culprit was not a hacker, but "Bob" (not his real name), an "inoffensive and quiet" family man and the company's top-performing programmer, who could be seen toiling at his desk day after day and staring diligently at his monitor.

For Bob had come up with the idea of outsourcing his own job - to China. So, while a Chinese consulting firm got on with the job he was paid to do, on less than one-fifth of his salary, he whiled away his working day surfing Reddit, eBay and Facebook.

One hopes we aren't being catfished, but, regardless, it reflects what we know to be true: the most valuable white collar employee is just as fungible as his blue collar co-worker.

Posted by orrinj at 5:02 PM


The Growing Adoption of Creative Commons Textbooks (SIMON OWENS, January 17, 2013, US News)

Cable Green doesn't have to look very far to find an example of an education system weighed down by what he considers a bloated and inefficient textbook industry. The director of global learning for Creative Commons simply points to his home state of Washington. "My state spends $130 million per year buying textbooks," he says. "We only have a million public school kids in the state, so we're spending $130 per kid per year." Because each book is expected to last half a decade, the kids aren't permitted to keep them or write in them. The books are only available in one format, paper, and are sometimes seven to 10 years out of date. If one of Green's kids loses a textbook, as a parent Green is expected to fork over the money to replace it.

A superior alternative, he believes, would be easy to execute. "Instead of spending $130 million a year getting those outcomes, what if the state put up $100 million in one time money," he suggests. "We have 12 grades and eight textbooks per grade, so what if we put up a $1 million [request for proposal] for each book, and anyone can reply. The professors from the best universities can reply. McGraw Hill can reply. It's an open RFP, but the conditions are that the books are licensed under Creative Commons because they're paid for with taxpayer money."

Under this model, the intellectual property that results from these purchases would be owned by the public. In addition to being free to download online, the schools can print up paper versions for less than $5 per copy. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 AM


Gene Sharp: The Machiavelli of non-violence : In a long life of scholarship and dissent, Gene Sharp has been imprisoned and persecuted, but never silenced. His ideas continue to inspire resistance movements across the world. (JOHN-PAUL FLINTOFF, 03 JANUARY 2013, New Statesman)

Gene Sharp is not a typical pacifist. "When I used to lecture, I would always get complaints from the pacifists," says the academic, who turns 85 this month. "They would say I wasn't pure. They said that what I was proposing was 'still conflict'." Military people often understood him better. A retired US army colonel, Robert Helvey, heard Sharp lecture 20 years ago and persuaded him to visit Burma, where rebels asked Sharp to give them advice.

He wrote a pamphlet. "I didn't know Burma well," he recalls. "So I had to write generically: if a movement wanted to bring a dictatorship to an end, how would they do it?" That pamphlet, From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993), contained the idea for which Sharp is now known all over the world - that power is held only by the consent of the people over whom it is exercised, and that consent can be withdrawn. All regimes depend on certain pillars of support and, with a proper strategy, resisters can remove those pillars non-violently.

The book was originally published in English and Burmese. "And I thought that was it," Sharp says. But it went on display in a bookshop in Bangkok. From there, nobody knows exactly how it spread. But it did - everywhere. "I'm still amazed. It didn't spread because of propaganda or some sales pitch but because people found it usable, and important."

"I had no idea how useful it would be," confirms Srdja Popovic, a leader of Otpor, the movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000. Others have described the effect of reading Sharp's work as "mind-blowing", because it showed that what had seemed impossible might not be impossible after all.

The flip side of this, of course, is that America and its fellow democracies are justified in the violence they've used against civilians in enemy regimes, precisely because those regimes depend on the acquiescence of their people.  The more successes Mr. Sharp's ideas have the more damning the indictment of folks in Hamburg, Hiroshima, Hanoi, etc.
Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


At Root of Strike, Runaway Costs in City's School Busing System (AL BAKER, 1/16/13, NY Times)

The day before the start of New York City's first school bus strike in 34 years, a long yellow bus pulled up at Public School 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the little bodies that popped out could be counted on one hand: Three. The big bus had dropped off part of its cargo earlier, at another school, but in all, 10 children had ridden on a bus fit for about 60.

A similarly large bus pulled up with 17. Finally, a modern-looking bus whose side panel said it could carry 66 children arrived with its passengers: Five children.

"I think in some cases, we have one child on the bus," said Kathleen Grimm, the city's deputy schools chancellor for operations.

The strike that began Wednesday, which idled more than half of the city's school buses and forced about 113,000 children to find new ways to school, was prompted by a fight over union jobs. But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.

That cost per pupil for transportation is pretty close to the cost per pupil for the entire education ($9,700) in the Other Brother's town.
Posted by orrinj at 8:47 AM


Head Start: Still Useless : Pat Moynihan understood the problem years ago. (Michael G. Franc, 1/17/13, National Review)

What is it about the Head Start program that prevents presumably responsible adults from doing what's best for poor children? What prompts this question is the reaction to a scientifically rigorous evaluation of Head Start released last month. Conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, the study demonstrates (once again) that this Great Society program just doesn't work.

This time, researchers expanded on previous tracking studies of kids in Head Start, which had stopped at the first-grade level. By measuring the program's impact on 5,000 three- and four-year-old children all the way through third grade, researchers have given lawmakers a state-of-the-art assessment of the long-term impact of Head Start, one that ought to guide them as they ponder allocating additional billions of dollars to the program.

The findings are most discouraging. "By the end of 3rd grade," the study's authors report, "there were very few impacts found . . . in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health, and parenting practices." The researchers measured a total of 142 outcomes in these four domains and concluded that, within a few years, access to Head Start had no measurable impact on all but six outcomes. Moreover, even in those six, "there was no clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."

On the other hand, it does provide make-work jobs, so it's kind of a model for the Right's vision of an entitlement free economy.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


Updates on the Gun Violence Debate (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 1/17/13)

Just about everyone agrees with the idea -- about 9 in 10 gun owners favor background checks as do people with no firearms in their home. Independents (95 percent), Democrats (93 percent) and Republicans (89 percent) all support a background check for those trying to buy firearms. No matter where people live: in the South, the Northeast, in big cities, in small towns. Even members of the National Rifle Association favor background checks. Only 7 percent of all adults in the survey, conducted Friday though Tuesday, oppose background checks for prospective gun customers.

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


New Purpose of Government Is Better Government (Ezra Klein, Jan 16, 2013, Bloomberg)

For all the bitterness in Washington these days, it's easy to miss the broad consensus that undergirds our contentious politics. Republicans swear to protect Medicare and Social Security, and most recognize they can no longer hope to repeal Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Democrats voted to make the George W. Bush tax rates permanent for almost all Americans.

This is not a stable peace. The Democrats have mostly won the debate over what the government should do, while the Republicans have mostly won the debate over how much the government should tax. [...]

As Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias has written, we are experiencing an epochal change in our politics, which he calls the "end of big government liberalism." The progressive project of building a decent welfare state is giving way to the more technocratic work of financing and managing it. How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years. [...]

The paper "No Discount: Comparing the Public Option to the Coupon Welfare State," by Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal, is a useful companion to Teles' tale of kludgeocracy. While Teles surveys a broad trend in governance, Konczal drills deep into a single policy dilemma that we confront repeatedly: Whether to provision public services directly, through government-run programs, or to use government as "a giant coupon machine, whose primary responsibility is passing out coupons to discount and subsidize private education, health-care, old-age pensions and a wide variety of other primary goods."

In recent years, the "coupon machine" theory of American governance -- exemplified by vouchers and tax subsidies -- has been ascendant. That's how most of Obamacare works. It's also the foundation of Republican efforts to reform Medicare and education.

As Konczal argues, "The advantages associated with vouchers are ones of choice, efficiency, competition, budget control and incentive management."

The First Way has prevailed to the extent that we recognize services are better provided by private sector means--especially as regards the investment of the monies we set aside for retirement, medical care, education, etc.--while the Second Way has prevailed to the extent that it is universally recognized that government has a primary role in making sure those monies are set aside (whether private or public monies).

All that we're debating is the speed and thoroughness with which the two ways are integrated.  The exact same debate is, of course, going on in every single nation of the Anglosphere and Scandinavia.  Since they have parliamentary systems they can often move faster than we can to enact our own ideas, but we'll catch up.  They won't long be more like us than we are.

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 AM


Spectre of Separatism Haunts Europe (Gordon N. Bardos, January 17, 2013, National Interest)

Importantly, the rise of separatism in Western Europe over the past decade has mirrored similar problems to the east, belying the conventional view that democracy and economic prosperity mollify nationalist tensions and aspirations. Separatism in Western Europe has taken two forms, both rejection of current state arrangements (as in Belgium, Spain and the UK), and rejection of the European Union itself. In Scotland, as Charles King recently observed, nationalism has gained more force than at any other time since William Wallace. Similarly, in Belgium Flemish nationalism has been steadily gaining strength for the past decade, and in Spain in November, separatist parties won almost two-thirds of the seats in Catalonia's regional elections. The European Free Alliance based in Brussels currently boasts some for forty nationalist and autonomist parties from across the continent. Even the United States is not immune--113,000 people recently signed a petition in support of independence for Texas.

Exacerbating the separatist and secessionist pressure on Europe's existing geopolitical order has been the notable rise in public dissatisfaction with the EU.

That the future is one of smaller governments closer to the people rather than massive entities the citizen can't influence or identify with is only a crisis to those who despise the people, Realists and their ilk.