Monday, June 30, 2008

How much fuel is that?

Judging fuel efficiency using MPG apparently leads most of us to misjudge the benefits of increasing fuel efficiency for the least efficient cars.

Miles per gallon tells us how many miles we can drive on one gallon of gas. But who has a sense of their gas usage?

What we do have a clear sense for--what we most clearly experience--is how many miles we drive. So the measurement that best matches how we intuitively measure our fuel use is how many gallons it takes to drive a certain number of miles (gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon).

The economists who conducted these experiments found that the MPG measurement is misleading because people don't realize that trading in a car that gets 18 mpg for one that gets 28 mpg is a bigger jump in fuel efficiency (twice as big!) than trading in one that gets 34 mpg for one that gets 50 mpg. The implication for policy is that increasing the fuel efficiency of behemoth gas guzzlers is more effective than incrementally tweaking hybrids.

This would be a great problem for a critical thinking course!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A collection of tidbits

Links from this week and last:

Via GonePublic, "Who is a public intellectual?" ponders whether the public intellectual is in decline in these anti-intellectual times. Answer: no, but don't count specialized New York Intellectuals. Do count generalists who make thoughtful problems
interesting in history, politics, literature, and science. Barbara Ehrenreich, Garry Wills. I would add Bill McKibben--I don't think it's the academic or journalistic affiliation that makes someone a public intellectual but the type of problem and the level of interest they get for it.

History, science, literature: astronomers have used events in Homer's Odyssey to identify the date that Odysseus returned from the Trojan War--April 16, 1178 B.C. Their crucial assumption is that Homer knew what he was talking about when he mentioned celestial events--when Venus was on the rise, when constellations were setting. And surely he did--no "security" floodlights to block the view back then.

article on neigborhoods, from my neighborhood. I taught Robert Putnam's article on social capital in my critical thinking class this year. Most people got the message that close communities raise quality of life. But a few students claimed that because they were "naturally" loners, they would not benefit from making social ties, in spite of Putnam's research findings that, for instance, people who get together with friends are less likely to die in the next year. These few students were also the ones who were struggling in the class, struggled to even get to class, weren't washing, and just plain weren't having fun. The story they were telling themselves about their exceptional natural inclination was not doing them any favors!

When males do it, it's biology...when females do it, it's "promiscuity."

I used to read books, but now I read reviews. I used to read novels, but now I read magazines. I used to read journal articles, but now I can get most of what I need to fill that buzzing need for intellectual stimulation online. And I'm not the only one (fair warning: a Nietzsche reference in this one).
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year...His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sexy Girls and the Big Picture

Khadimir sends along this WaPo review of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. Here's a commercial showing a sexy sexy girl (looks to be all of 8 years old) who knows how to play the guys.

Really, I'm not sure why the Bratz/Barbie big-haired, lipstick-wearing, perfumed and ditzy girls are today's sexual ideal. In my circles, the sexy girls are the ones with tattoos, and the ones who ride Waterford road bikes, and the ones who can't get enough of counterpossibles and modal truths.

My problem is more about raising a non-sexist boy than it is holding off the sexualization of grade school girls. But the two are certainly related. And, according to another book I've been reading, Taking Back Childhood, both are related to the 1984 de-regulation of media that gave a pass to corporations to market any old thing to preschoolers. Really, is there any reason for The Lolita Effect other than it being a way to make a buck?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ecology and History

Here's a New York Times article about new ideas in stream restoration. It does a great job of making presettlement environmental history seem at least a teensy-weensy bit sexy!

In the embedded video, Dorothy Merritts says that when we are considering the reasons for environmental problems, such as heavy silt loads deposited into the Cheasapeake Bay, "we can't just look around at modern land use and say 'We see agriculture—that's the problem. We see new suburbs—that's the problem.' Instead, go in and look at the history of that location."

Two good points here:
1. Land use history is not just interesting--it's an essential piece of knowledge to have in order to understand causes.
2. Over a billion dollars of private and public money is being spent on environmental restoration, but many projects are not based on evidence. The practice is advancing faster than the academic study of failures and successes.

How Well Does the APA Serve Our Needs?

Yikes. Spiros just about hits the nail on the head. I didn't think that the APA website could be any more poorly designed, difficult to navigate, or just plain ugly. I was wrong--here's a proposed new version.

The design is bad enough. The content makes me hang my head. How useful is it to anyone to post "data on the profession" that covers

— job placement from 1982-2002 (why does the data stop 5 years ago?),
— gender and race data just for 1991-1996 (over a decade ago!), and
— information on degrees awarded from 1949-1994 ??!!

Most of this data comes from free, public government sources and is available up through 2006. Heck, I've even posted some of it here and here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Equal Pay for Equal Work

My Congressional Rep. again stands up for women and families. Louise Slaughter is a lead sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act which responds to last year's awful Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision with legislation that would help protect women against workplace discrimination.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 paid lip service to discrimination against women. It was passed because at the time women earned just 59¢ for every dollar that men earned. Now, 45 years later--hooray--women earn 77¢ for every dollar earned by men for the same work. An improvement of 18 cents!

And this figure just compares equal work. It doesn't begin to reflect how women are systematically kept out of high-paying, high-status jobs.

This is what Louise Slaughter said in a recent interview:
The Ledbetter case really shook us up. It was startling. None of us really thought that that would happen in this day and age. But Lilly Ledbetter's not alone. The Wage Project, a nonprofit group, estimates that women lose between $200,000 and $2 million in their lifetimes because of the wage gap.
Read the whole interview here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

W.V.O. Quine Video

Here is part of a 1977 video of W.V.O. Quine being interviewed by Brian Magee on BBC TV.

Magee introduces Quine as "a philosopher at the very summit of world reputation."

In this clip, Quine talks about how philosophy is on a continuum with science but is also different from it. He gives the examples of history and engineering as being at the most applied end of the sciences and philosophy and mathematics being at the most abstract end.

Magee asks Quine about the sorts of questions that philosophy takes up. Quine says that the question of how the world began is for physicists to deal with. The question of how life began is a question for biologists. And the question of why the world or life began is not a question at all, not even one for philosophers. It's merely a pseudo-question, because it doesn't have an answer.

Finally, Quine divides philosophy into two categories--ontology and epistemology. Philosophy deals with questions about what there is and questions about what we can know. On the subject of what there is, Quine says that objects are either material or mathematical.

Well, I'm an undisputed fan of Quine (see this website)--but doesn't this seem like a narrow view of philosophy?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Philosophical Partitions

I've been talking to a friend about the great divide in philosophy--between analytic and continental approaches. Although there are genuine differences in style, I'm convinced that the divide is politically maintained. Of course it is. Analytic philosophers of language (some of them) show more animosity toward continental philosophy of language than they do toward, say, analytic aesthetics, even though the difference between them is clearly greater in the latter case.

My friend pointed out that at the extremes (and perhaps that is the area of metaphysics in both cases?) they rival each other when it comes to elitism.

And how relevant to contemporary problems is the purest of either? The degree of triviality that is the apparent goal of the analytics is perfectly balanced by the degree of obscurity on the other side.

Monday, June 02, 2008

New Environmental Studies and Sciences organization

Who wants to strengthen research, teaching and service in the many Environmental Studies programs of North America?

Sure, we all do, but to help that effort along, consider checking out the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS). From their website:

The purpose of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) is to serve the faculty, students and staff of the 1000+ interdisciplinary "environmental" programs in North America and around the world. We seek to strengthen teaching, research and service in environmental studies and sciences, and to improve communication across boundaries that too often divide the traditional academic disciplines -- the physical, biological, and social sciences, and the humanities -- that need to be brought to bear in understanding and dealing with environmental problems and solutions. The association works to support the professional development of Association members not just as individuals but also to advance Environmental Studies and Sciences as a whole.

Since I got this email the same day that I read what a sad joke it is to attempt capping greenhouse gases, I joined the AESS immediately, in the hopes that the future might not resemble the past or, for that matter, the present.

Thanks to Dale Jamieson for forwarding this information to the International Society for Environmental Ethics.