Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Freckle Song

Joel and Ken have been talking about Homer and Jethro, a couple of fairly brilliant "hillbilly" songsters.

And Joel posted one of their songs, and asked: is this a parody of another song? And I thought for sure it was, because it sounded SO FAMILIAR. But I think perhaps I was remembering another song that sounds similar (but which the Homer and Jethro is not a parody of). In fact, I thought they had done it, but I see now that it was a different group. It's "The Freckle Song," well-known to fans of Dr. Demento:

I thought that was terribly terribly racy when I was like 13. "She has freckles on her BUT(T)... she is nice" ahahahahaha. (I also guess I didn't get the line about her getting plastered, and being drunker than the singer's brother. "Bastard" was not a word I really knew as a kid. But I did get the "born in Hackensack and made a fortune on" joke.).

(An even more borderline-bawdy version is here but the person who originated it doesn't want it embedded. It's sort of a nice vid, though, with images from the 20s and 30s. And the lyrics are different)

A similar song, with the idea of "you expect they're going to say one thing and they say another" from Dr. Demento is the Shaving Cream Song

(warning: may have borderline subliminal icky images.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Observation of the week

...from a comment on the Newsbusters site, on a story about the Snuggie (those weird backwards-bathrobe things) and other "as seen on tv" products:

"those ads are just like Al Gore; exaggerating the severity of a problem until Something Must Be Done" (my paraphrase but that's close to it.)

That's exactly it. EXACTLY it. That's why I hate so many of those ads - like the Snuggie - life is so hard because blankets fall off your arms! Or those glass things you fill with water and stick in your house plants - watering them is SUCH a giant chore!

So many of those commercials I just LAUGH at because I think, "If having a blanket slide off my arms when I am lying on the couch reading a book is the biggest problem I have in my life, I am blessed beyond my wildest dreams"

Seriously - does anyone watch those ads and suddenly feel like their life is terribly, terribly hard because they have to remember to water their spider plant once a week?

Or are we really becoming a nation of wusses, where every little thing is SO HARD that we are easily enticed into sending off money - or, in the political version, giving up a freedom - for some promise that looks dubious, at best?

As for me? I use sweaters. In fact, I'm so hardcore I MAKE my own sweaters.

There's just something that seems kind of sadly symbolic about people buying into being convinced that a problem they never recognized before is now a crisis, and they must go and throw some money to a huckster for a solution.

(And I bet the Snuggies are made out of really crappy material.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Busy news day

Yeah, yeah, I know. But this is less stupid:

Blago ousted as Ill. Gov.

So here goes (and OK, it doesn't scan perfectly. But it's been a long day)

Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye

We never loved you, the way that YOU love YOU
'Cause if we did, no no, we wouldn't think you're nuts (an' we do)
You might look like Elvis, Roddy, but a-our trust (our trust, our trust)
You abused it
So we're kicking - gonna go and kick him
Go on and kick him curbside, na-na na-na-na na na

Na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye

Listen to me now

He's never workin', the way he said he was workin'
Spent all those days at home, readin' bout Churchill
That may be worthwhile, Roddy but a-our trust (our trust, our trust)
It was a-bus-ed
So we're kicking - gonna go and kick him
Go on and kick him curbside, na-na na-na-na na na

Na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye

[fade in]
Hey hey-ey, goodbye
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye
[repeat many times and fade out]

DeadPresident Financial Fail

Yeah, it's shaping up to be an irritating week for me.

A while back I posted about how new IRS regs were changing how we college types could save for retirement? How 403(b) accounts were becoming much more restricted? And how there are still 457(b) accounts? But that information about them is scarce and hard to understand?

Well, my campus still offers 403(b) accounts, but now only through one financial group. I don't want to name names lest I get nastygram comments as a result of blind searches, but let's just say that since it's named after a long-dead president (or someone with the same last name as him), I'll call it DeadPresident Financial. Or DPF for short.

Okay, so DPF made arrangements to have representatives on campus to talk to us and to set up accounts. You would THINK they would have a representative to answer questions and one to actually set up accounts. Furthermore, since we were closed for a day and a half this week because of bad weather, they'd maybe send an extra person to play catch-up with the missed appointments.

Sadly, you would be wrong.

I had an appointment this afternoon. I stopped in the middle of writing an exam - which always bugs me, it seems that when I stop when an exam's partly finished, that's when errors creep in and I do stupid things like repeating the same question in two slightly different ways. But whatever, I don't like to be late for appointments. So I rushed over there. Walked in 2 minutes early, even.

There was one guy - in this big giant room - and one woman that I presume was a sort of receptionist. But she didn't see me at first because she was either madly text-messaging or playing a game on her cell phone. After I kind of coughed and shuffled around, she called out, "Someone will be with you in a few minutes!"

So, fortunately, I had brought a student thesis I wanted to re-read, as it is up for defense this week. So I started reading.

About 10 minutes elapsed. Remember - I had been 2 minutes early for my appointment, so my appointment was now technically 8 minutes over - out of 15 they had allotted.

The woman stood up and shambled over to me. "We have some stuff you can read" she said, shoving one of the prospectus-packets at me.

I politely declined, and explained I just had some questions, that I was thinking of continuing on with a 457(b) with TIAA-CREF but I wanted to hear what they offered.

Oh, she said. Just oh. No attempt to apologize for my being kept waiting. No explanation as to why she spent the last 10 minutes or so playing with her cell phone while I stood there.

I kind of coughed and remarked that I had places I had to be (it is now past the time my appointment should have concluded).

"Well," she said, "We have appointments tomorrow." No, I explained, I am busy all afternoon tomorrow. "Monday?" she asked, "I don't know when he will be ready to talk to you" she said, indicating the lone representative.

At that point, I was getting irritated - why the hell should I re-make an appointment I probably don't need? Why should I go all the way across campus on yet another day,probably only to find them busy again.

I told her I was going for my allergy shot (so the trip over there was not a TOTAL loss to me) but I'd check back when I got done.

So I did. And there were two more people stacked up waiting - standing, as I said, in this big bare room, with nothing to do but wait for an undefined period of time. And the receptionist was PLAYING HER FREAKING CELL PHONE AGAIN.

I'm sorry but that simply does not favorably dispose me to using the DeadPresident Financial Group - if they care so little about trying to get new business, how will they treat me as an established customer? Worse?

At least TIAA- when I called them - had a cheerful person on the other end who answered all my questions.

I'm sorry but I can't stand bad customer service, especially when it's a company supposedly trying to get my business. There was no explanation offered, no "We're sorry we're backed up but we're trying to get Tuesday's appointments cleared up" (and for that matter, why not just call the people from Tuesday and tell them, "We will be back next Tuesday, come in on your time then." And I think it's especially unconscionable that the person apparently tasked with greeting people and getting them started was sitting there, apparently playing on her cell phone. I know, it's boring doing reception, but criminy - when someone walks in needing help, it's your job.

There really is a giant surplus of STUPID around. I don't know if creatures on the other side of the universe just happened to open up a wormhole and dump all their planet's STUPID into it, and it fell out on our planet or what, but I'm really starting to feel dangerously angry about all the STUPID floating around.

Critical Thinking FAIL

This is going to be ranty and screedy. But as I said before, there seems to be such an excess of stupid in the world right now that I can't quite deal with it.

Have you heard the latest news about "evil" High Fructose Corn Syrup?

That it contains - ZOMG - MERCURY! Booga booga booga!

Okay - mercury is bad. Some forms (like methyl mercury - Minimata Bay, Japan is a case study I will always remember from Environmental Geology) are worse than others, but yes, I agree, mercury is not something we want exposure to.

However - the amounts of mercury detected?

0.113 parts per million (source of this information).

My reaction upon reading that?

"Wow. I didn't know they made equipment sensitive enough to detect that small an amount."

I think Ken - if he is reading this - will agree with me.

Maybe an illustration of a part per million (or ppm) will help, for those who don't use chemistry daily. A part per million is about equivalent to one drop of water in the gas tank of a small car. The amount of mercury we're looking at here would be equivalent to one tenth of that.

I dare say we are exposed to a greater amount of mercury from the ambient air pollution we all breathe. (Coal-fired electrical plants produce small quantities of mercury). If you live anywhere near the Canadian Shield, you are probably exposed to natural sources of mercury from it.

(Sources of mercury in the environment from the USGS).

Okay. So mercury in tiny quantities, while not something to be happy about, is probably not something that will make your children developmentally delayed, make you sick or crazy, or cause you to develop cancer. And even if it is, it is probably not something that can be eliminated from our environment. That's just how it is.

So, now on to the Critical Thinking FAIL part of the program.

I am on a networking website - one devoted to fiber crafters. There are message boards on there...some devoted to technical aspects of the craft, some more general. On one of the general boards there was this topic:"ALERT: Mercury found in High Fructose Corn Syrup."

I read the entire thread last night. It grew increasingly strident and crazed. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE, people said. THIS IS HURTING THE CHILDREN. Other people smugly reported how they NEVER consumed anything with HFCS, and that thinking people would do well to do likewise.

I kept hoping for a voice of reason to step up - for someone to say, "Hey guys, I'm a chemist. Avoid HFCS if you wish for dietary reasons, but this really isn't the end of the world."

But no. It grew increasingly unbalanced. One poster claimed that chicory and inulin were "other names" for it. (Chicory is a plant, rather like a dandelion, of which the root is used to flavor things. It is the famous ingredient in New Orleans style coffee. Inulin is made from starch; it is a naturally occurring fiber and it can help with absorption of certain nutrients in the human gut).

I so dearly wanted to go in there and open up a can of Scientific Tushie-Whip on those fools. But I didn't. You know what stayed my hand?

People who hold those kind of emotional opinions don't want to listen to science.

I almost posted. ALMOST. Then I thought of how I'd be hounded. How people would flame me, would speculate on how I was maybe a "shill for the industry"

(Trust me, I'm no fan of HFCS. I don't like how it tastes in stuff; I don't drink pop mainly because I don't like the sticky-sweet aftertaste it gives pop. I'm also not entirely convinced that it's metabolized "just the same as" sugar; there are a few small studies suggesting it affects insulin differently than sucrose-based sugars do. But I think the issue could be taken care of on a "marketplace" basis - let those who dislike HFCS request products without it, and be willing to pay the premium they command. Those who don't care, fine - they are probably really not going to be hurt at all by consuming the stuff.)

I could imagine days upon days of "private messages" sent to me screaming at me and telling me how I was WRONG and EVIL and STUPID and DIDN'T CARE ABOUT THE CHILDREN WHO ARE NOW PROBABLY GOING TO GET AUTISM FROM THIS IF THE VACCINES DON'T CAUSE IT FIRST.

That kind of thing.

The one thing I will observe, though: I really, really hope they don't start a grassroots movement to ban HFCS. Because I can only imagine the unintended consequences that would come from that - probably other sweeteners would be banned as well, in the worst-case we could see our cereal choices dwindle down to Bran Flakes, Corn Flakes, or unsweetened shredded wheat. And cookies, cake, and ice cream become black market items. In the less-than-worst-case scenario, food prices go up sharply because manufacturers have to use more expensive alternatives than HFCS.

I can kind of see a connection between this and the CPSIA issue I talked about a week or so ago: contamination shows up. "Something must be done!" Something is done, but it turns out it casts a net far wider than needed. Consumers and small businesspeople suffer.

In this case, it's slightly different: the lead and melamine contamination of toys really WAS a problem. Perhaps it was a problem that, had the proper existing laws have been adhered to, would not have happened. Mercury in trace amounts - in some cases too small to be detected - in one component of some foods - is not a problem on the order of a Dora the Explorer doll covered in paint with lead.

I used to say that if someone said, "We must do this for the children" that meant my taxes would soon go up. I think I'm going to add that if someone says "Something must be done!" it means my freedom and choice in the marketplace will soon decrease.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Funny....this one reminds me of someone...or maybe several someones. (But I think they disdain beer-in-cans in favor of fifths of something stronger, or stuff in bottles)

the quiet hum of busy-ness

Two reasons for the title.

First, that's me this week - it is a busy week. One of our grad students (I am on her committee) is defending on Thursday. And there's a bunch of other work-stuff to be done. (This morning, campus is closed because of bad weather - so I am at home, trying to finish one of the books a student chose for Directed Readings).

But the real reason for the title is that is the sound you hear in a good lab. A lab that works, that the students find challenging but not frustrating.

I enjoy teaching labs. The situation is more relaxed than a lecture class (and yes, I am one of those evil-according-to-the-educrats profs who still lectures. What can I say? I teach the sciences. By and large it is the most efficient way to convey information. Believe me, I have tried the "read the chapter and we'll discuss" thing - test scores were a lot lower and the students did not seem to grasp the material as well).

In lab, you can talk more-or-less "privately" to individual people - in class, if someone has a question or of a discussion gets going, anything you say is for the class at large, for public consumption. In lab, you can talk quietly to one person, you can deal with their particular confusion or problem, and you don't have to worry about phrasing it in a way that will make sense for anyone else.

The other thing is you get to see more of the personalities of individual students. Some are quiet and workmanlike - after the introduction, they get their supplies, sit down, and you don't hear from them again until they're done. Some people are kind of slapdash, trying to finish as fast as possible so they can leave. (Generally the labs I do are self-paced for individuals or small groups; if I do a debriefing I wait until the next lecture section. It doesn't work well to have one group finish in 45 minutes and then sit around rolling their eyes and making comments about the super-diligent people who want to take the full time to do everything just so). Some people have a lot of questions, others you maybe have to press a bit to be sure they DON'T have questions. Some people want to talk about something from lecture or clear up some kind of logistics point.

So I tend to circulate around the class helping people, seeing how things are going, asking questions, discussion. This semester I have a TA who has HAD the classes (and mirabile dictu, I have a TA for both my labs who has HAD the labs - so he can answer a lot of the questions, which frees me up for more leisurely discussion with other groups).

There's a point I've noticed, about midway during a "good" lab, where there's relatively little talking going on - everyone's settled down to the task at hand, people are working, things are making sense, data are being generated and interpreted. It's a good feeling. It's about the "rightest" feeling of teaching there is - knowing the students are understanding, knowing that (at least some of) the students are happy at their task. You don't have to do much but be on hand to answer questions or to be a sounding board for potential interpretations of results. It's sort of a peaceful feeling - sort of a surrendering-of-control that is kind of nice. It's now the students' responsibility to figure stuff out, to do the work. If someone complains that the lab failed, or that they didn't get it, it's not that I taught it badly - because here are six other groups clicking away and doing what needs to be done.

There are also nice little "eureka" moments - one lab we do is a very simple natural selection simulation, and one guy doing it remarked, "Oh, so there can be random stuff too - like a predator with a really high score doesn't get near any prey, he may be the "best possible" genetically at getting prey but he will still die out" - things that are maybe hard to convey in lecture, but in practice the students get them.

I think some of the labs are enjoyable, too because they are practical. My soils TA remarked the other day that "Soils lab is a fun lab." He went on to explain: "You're doing stuff that matters. Stuff that you might need to know how to do in your job." Yes, I have them do all of the simple basic testing that you can do on a soil. (Another thing I do, which I think helps the lab a lot - the first lab is taking the students out to a local natural area, having them find locations on a soils map, and then collect the soil they and their lab partner will be analyzing. So they're always working on the same soil - they get to build up a picture of the details of it - and it's something they kind of have "ownership" of because they chose the site. It's little things like that which help a lab along, I think.)

Labs are one of the best parts of teaching.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I really honestly don't care that much about politics (provided someone from The Government isn't knocking on my door to tell me what I can read, how I can worship, or what I can eat), but I still thought this little quiz was interesting:

My Political Views
I am a center-right moderate social libertarian
Right: 1.93, Libertarian: 1.56

Political Spectrum Quiz

Yeah, pretty much.

I'm more hawkish than a lot of people who take the test:

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: 3.11

Political Spectrum Quiz

What can I say but that there are bad people in this world, and it's our military's job to protect us from them, and in some cases, to protect the vulnerable around the world from those bad people.

This surprised me a little bit:

My Culture War Stance
Score: -0.42

Political Spectrum Quiz

I guess I'm not as conservative on some issues as many people would think I am. A big part of it is that I tend to take the attitude that what two consenting adults do is between them (or between them and their God). I may think what they're doing is wrong, but I don't think it's the government's place to prevent it. (Just don't TELL me about what you and your lover did last weekend, thanks.)

Oddly, my generalized opposition to the ending-of-life-of-innocents didn't seem to influence my score much.

And I'm pretty much inflexible on the First Amendment. I tend to think if we permit the banning of certain speech for being "hateful," soon all but the most bland speech will fall under that banner. And though I may be disgusted by certain things passing as "art," if we ban art that some people find offensive, soon we wind up with "art" like what was present during the Soviet Propaganda era in the old USSR.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Incredibly sweet song

As part of my digital cable package, I get something like 30 different digital music channels. Most of them I don't have much use for (eight different variants of country-pop?), but there is one kind of fun one I listen to sometime.

They call it by the (I think horrid) name "Malt Shop Oldies," which to me smacks of 20 or 30 something condescension - "Gramma and Grampa, here are your tunes"

It's mostly 50s and some early 60s stuff - lots of doo-wop, girl groups, that kind of thing. I love that kind of music.

One of the neat things about the channel is that along with the familiar stuff I've heard hundreds of times, once in a while they play some gem I either haven't heard or don't remember hearing.

Today one of those showed up. It's called "To the Aisle" and it's by a group called the Five Satins. (I think they're better known for "In the Still of the Night").

But the song struck me, partly because of the sheer sweetness of it, but also because it's SO VERY DIFFERENT from so much of what is promoted in pop music these days.

Here is the lyric that made me stop and listen more closely:

"Then you put a ring on her finger
And the tears start flowing awhile
Then you'll know she's yours forever
While each step draws you closer to the aisle"

Wow. I realize they're idealizing and all that, but still: very sweet.

And the idea of hoping and planning to get married - not always so promoted in today's cultural milieu.

(And not a mention of a bitch or a ho' anywhere in the entire song. Quite the opposite, in fact, it kind of puts the woman on a pedestal.)

While it's highly unlikely I'll get married at this point, and even less likely I'd have a big fancy reception with a band or a DJ, still, I have to say this would be a serious candidate for that "First Dance" song.

If you want to hear the song, here's a YouTube clip. The graphics along with the song aren't *great* - they sort of look like someone did Google Image searches on specific words and just plopped in what came up - but you can at least hear the song:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I watch too much tv

But did you know that Vince, the Creepy Sham-Wow Guy, has another ad, for this thing that chops stuff up?

And one of the lines in it is,

"You'll love my nuts!"

I s*** you not. The first time I saw it I was like, "Wait, did he just say..." and the second time I saw it I was like, "Oh yes he did!"

One tiny thing I wish...

That in this place where I live, this particular culture, people didn't automatically assume any female over 25 was married...and feel a need to inquire as to "why not?" if you aren't.

Oh, I never get snarky about it. I simply tell them what is, as I believe it to be, the truth: "I never met the right guy."

But, dear Lord, I get SO TIRED of explaining that. Or responding that my surname IS my maiden name (that's a variant of it. I suppose it's because people around here are so big into family connections; most women, upon meeting someone new who JUST MIGHT know some of their kin will tell the person "I used to be a Miller" or "My name used to be Castleberry.")

I don't know. Most of the time being single is what I think I would have chosen - I have free time to do things I couldn't have done with my life if I had married young and had kids - but sometimes having to EXPLAIN why I'm not just makes me feel weird.

I should be used to feeling weird by now; I've felt weird for the majority of my life (starting in grade school). But I really am about ready to start fitting in, to stop feeling like I'm the oddball in the room.

Friday, January 23, 2009

this is why...

I don't read Scientific American, I read American Scientist (which is written BY scientists and by and large, FOR scientists) instead:

Oh noes, bugs in our FOODZ, says American Scientist.

It's cochineal. One of the safest red dyes out there. It's been used for YEARS. And by the time they're done extracting it, there are no bug parts left - it's really little different from squeezing beet juice out of beets and using it to color things. There's really no beet in there.

I'd a million times rather eat dye that comes from a bug, that's been used safely for a very long time, than consume some dye that was concocted recently in a lab, which has been tested but not long-term tested. (I have similar concerns about artificial sweeteners)

(And yes, I realize that is somewhat unreasonable given my stance about other things. But I'm not saying aspartame should be BANNED, I'm just saying, label food with it and give me the CHOICE to buy something sugar-sweetened vs. something aspartame-sweetened)

The other thing that really, really gets to me? Scientific American referred to these things as "cochineal beetles." THEY ARE NOT BEETLES. They are scale insects. Different species, different order, different animal. (While this isn't as egregious as trying to reclassify fish as "sea kittens," it's still a taxonomic error and it BUGS me that a publication with "Scientific" in its name did that)

I am also irritated that Scientific American apparently used CSPI - also known as the Chicken Littles of the food world (except, they might say chicken is DANGEROUS!) as their source. Please. They are an advocacy group. They are not researchers. They are big into knee-jerk things, they are big into scare tactics. (Oddly enough, not that different from PETA). If we let them run the show, we'd be subsisting on organic kale and reverse-osmosis purified water. And you better not enjoy that kale too much!

I'm not even going to GET into the issue about "allowable bug parts" under the USDA, but suffice it to say, that box of Corn Flakes is likely NOT 100% pure corn flakes.

Scientific American, you lose.

I really hope this isn't a hallmark of a larger trend - some advocacy group comes out, screaming about something that really we don't need to be upset about (There have been three adverse reactions to cochineal dye in the past ten years - fewer than there have been to gluten, eggs, and many other "safe" food items.). Yet the CSPI apparently wants this stuff banned.

Look, if you're entomophobic - read the label. Don't buy anything colored with cochineal. But trust me - I've been eating stuff with cochineal dye in it since I was a little kid and it is totally safe (unless you are one of those 3 out of probably 100 million people who is allergic). I suspect cochineal is safer than Red 40 or Red 2.

I really hope this isn't the tone for the coming years. I hope the Administration and the Cabinet are smart enough and not easily influenced enough that they don't start doing idiotic, law-of-unexpected-consequences-generating things by banning stuff just because a bunch of hotheads get to screaming that it should be banned.

I can forsee a future where lots of things are banned because of their "potential danger" - not just cochineal but also guns, booze, cigarettes, animal fats, sugar, artificial sweeteners, vaccines, toys....the list goes on. Almost anything that is useful and or enjoyable to someone, there is probably an "advocate" out there with more emotion than brains who is spinning themselves up to start talking about how it should be banned.

(And as Bug Girl cites on her blog post - it's a source of a living wage to poor Central American farmers. So won't you think of the peasants?)

I realize I've ranted about a lot of things this week but there seems to be an unusually great amount of stupidity in the news these days.

COMMON SENSE, people, it's called COMMON SENSE. There seems to be a severe deficit of it these days.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

When worlds collide:

In this case: stupidity, politics, and cake:

some really bad Obama inauguration-celebrating cakes.

(Oh, I KNOW, all of you read Cake Wrecks already. But I wanted to call attention to this post because some of the cakes are so horribly bad. There's one celebrating "Obmoa's" inauguration. And there are recycled Yule Logs - slap a sugar medallion with Obama's face on it, and it's a Presidential InLOGural cake.

You might not want to read the comments though; like so many popular blogs, the comments go kind of bad kind of fast.)

quick financial question

So, my campus is no longer offering 403(b) plans through TIAA-CREF, as they have for years. There is a new provider, one I won't name here, but I'm not sure I trust them to still be around when I hit 70 1/2 (well, I'm not sure I trust TIAA to be around, but that's for different reasons).

They will still permit 457(b) plans through TIAA.

So here are a couple of quick questions, if anyone knows the answer:

Supposedly one difference is that the employer "owns" the 457(b) account, while the employee "owns" the 403(b). Is that going to come back to bite me in the backside someday? Does that mean that my university could decide it needs cash and pilfer our retirement savings? Or is the "ownership" just a piece of legalese?

This "withdrawal direction from employer only" bothers me - apparently that means my university can set how much I get per month out of my account. True?

Gah. I hate this. Apparently this is because of some stupid IRS tinkering. At first, I thought I'd just stay with TIAA and do a 457(b) but I do NOT like the concept that my employer will "own" my account rather than me, because that suggests that if we got someone with sticky fingers in the accounts office, all of us with 457(b) plans might find ourselves looking for jobs as greeters at Wal-Mart after retirement.

But there are apparently some changes to the 403(b) account...I can't find any clear discussion of them online, other than one fund provider saying, "We are now a 403(b) provider; go with us or you'll be SORRY!"

Frick. Maybe I should just rip a hole in my guest room mattress and stuff money in there. It bugs the hell out of me that I have a Ph.D. and yet I can't make my way through the jargon on prospecti well enough to determine if I'm going to get screwed or not.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One of the conservation guys in my lab this afternoon had a funny shirt.

It had a picture of a buck deer, and the words: "Deer: the other red meat." On the buck were little arrows pointing to the various cuts, naming them, and telling what they were good for.

I'm not a hunter, but as a plant ecologist I've come to consider deer (at least in the population sizes present in much of the US today) a pest species of sorts. So I have absolutely no problem if someone wants to convert a few deer into backstrap or pot roast.

A lot of the conservation students have funny t-shirts they wear. One of my favorites was the big guy (and he was a BIG guy) who had a camouflage shirt that said on the front, in small white letters, "you can't see me."

Some of our conservation students can be kind of problem people - but then again any group can. But I appreciate the sense of humor that most of them seem to have.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The law of unintended consequences in action...

This is something I really hadn't commented about, though it touches on several matters dear to my heart, because I felt I couldn't find reasonable information.

Well, I think Forbes Magazine is pretty reasonable:

Scrap the CPSIA Act.

This is the act that was apparently fairly quickly passed last year, after the outcry about lead and melamine contamination in certain children's toys, and tiny magnets that posed a choking hazard.

Sounds good, right? Make all the toy manufacturers test their stuff and prove it's safe, so that Chinese Scandal can never happen again.

But. Many of the small American toymakers - in fact, the very companies that profited from the scandal because people realized that, for example, a wooden toy train that was only finished with a wax finish was probably a lot safer than a plastic doo-dad that was painted with who-knows-what - are now going to have to do extensive testing unless they can prove they only use a few "exempted" materials (and even then, in some cases, they might have to test).

I have read on a lot of the craft blogs, how people who used to make children's toys - things like stuffed animals that had NONE of the lead paint, NONE of the tiny magnets, not even buttons sewn on (because buttons can pose a choking risk) are probably going to close down shop. Because testing is too expensive.

Testing can run $1000 per item. And while that might be OK for a multinational corporation, for a small businessperson making toy trains or baby burp pads or knitting baby hats, that's not going to be feasible. (And note that it is per item. Apparently even if you knit two different styles of hats of the same basic yarn, they will both need testing under the law).

That's bad. Especially because a lot of people doing this are people who were downsized from other jobs, or parents who wanted to stay at home with their kids, or retired folks looking for a little more income.

And for the consumer, it's bad: it will, if the law is carried out to the most stringent extreme, sharply limit consumer choice. Consumers will largely be forced to buy from the larger sellers and larger manufacturers.

Even worse? Many, many thrift stores - which are technically not required to test items, but are liable if a "bad" item turns up - are just going to landfill tons of "gently used" children's clothing and toys, rather than face the risk.

So many charitable organizations - like St. Vincent de Paul - are going to lose part of their income. And parents looking for an affordable source of clothes lose too - especially parents who are cash-strapped and maybe CAN'T afford the full price of new clothes or toys.

Another unintended consequence? A lot of libraries are worried. Apparently books fall into this ruling as well. Some librarians whose blogs I read have speculated aloud whether they will have to trash the existing Children's section and buy all new - which is a tragedy, not just in terms of the cost to the library, but in the loss of out-of-print or historical books.

And yet another (and this is the dear to my heart part) - I know a lot of people who make quilts for Project Linus, a charity that provides handmade blankets for children facing serious hospital time or other problems (like being taken to a foster care situation). I have even made one, recently, for Project Linus. They now have a thing up on their webpage noting the act and saying they are trying to "work around it." But I'd HATE to think of all those people's time and care (and money) winding up in a landfill somewhere, because a stupid law said that you can't give a washable cotton blanket to a child, because some toy manufacturer in China cut the paint they used on a toy with lead.

In fact, I was planning on doing more quilt tops for them, but I've put a moratorium on that until I see how it works out, and if they will actually still be allowed to distribute them.

There may even - and I can't find any information on this, but it wouldn't surprise me - be a ban on the selling of "vintage" toys and dolls - even to adult collectors. Because, I suppose, it could be argued they pose an "attractive nuisance" and how are you to know that old teddy bear you're selling to that nice lady is actually going to sit on a shelf in her house and not be given to her 10 year old?

So, in the name of "protecting the children," we may destroy the livelihood of certain small businesses, cause a problem for libraries, make it harder for struggling families to provide clothing for children. All because some factories in China violated laws that were PROBABLY already in place governing what could be used in children's products.

A lot of the crafty blogs are up in arms about this. As are a lot of the frugal-living blogs. I suspect some of the mom-blogs are too, but I don't read any of them.

It just seems to me like so many things: Bad Thing Happens. Someone decides, "Something must be done!" Something is done, but then it turns out to hurt people - in some cases, people who had nothing to do with the original Bad Thing that happened. The people who WERE acting responsibly and not doing the bad thing - the small toy-makers especially, but also arguably libraries and thrift stores (in that they were providing an option for people not able to spend huge amounts of money, and they were effectively recycling goods that still had use in them) get spanked by the law.

Oh, and the kicker? It seems that a lot of the testing facilities that will be profiting from this new law? Are in China. Lovely. Just lovely...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pres. Bush is a better person than I am...

They said on the noon radio news that President Bush was spending his last day in office calling world leaders and thanking them for their support and for working with him.

He is a better person than I am, because if I had the White House calling codes for one more day, and had been in the position he had been in? I would have TOTALLY been prank calling places like MoveOn.

And I wouldn't just do the classic "Hello, may I speak to Hugh Jass? I KNOW there is a Hugh Jass there." Or the one about the running refrigerator, which is admittedly old and stupid, but still. No. I'd try to find or hire someone who could do a good Obama impression, have them talk to the MoveOn or whomever people, lead them on, make them think something really great was going to happen...then have the impressionist revert to his real voice, and go "Psych! I TOTALLY had you going there!" and then start laughing.

But yeah, it's a good thing soon-to-be-former President Bush is more mature than I am...

A couple of political thoughts but more than just that...

1. Now that Bush is almost out of office, could people maybe stop with the hate, the "dumb Bush" jokes, the "evil Bush" jokes? (I know, I know - they still sell gag corkscrews of Clinton and that bugs me, too).

2. I can't wait for Obama to actually do something so people have something to comment about other than the sort of crazed celebrity-adulation I've seen. Really, they are treating him and his family much the way Princess Diana was treated - or the way Bono is treated - or the way, I don't know, that guy in the new vampire movie gets treated.

I can't help but think that kind of adulation isn't good for a person. I may bitch and whine about how no one ever seems to notice that anything I do is any good, but I think I'd be very uncomfortable with lots of unearned praise.

Actually, I take that back: I KNOW I'd be very uncomfortable with it. And to veer away (thank goodness) from the political, back to this article that I sadly think I'm going to have to suggest rejection on:

I went through grad school with a very picky adviser. I can't even count how many times I re-wrote my thesis, let alone my dissertation. He was always quick to point out what was not good about something. (But he was also that way about his own work; he was very open about it when something he did was not up to his standards). Praise was very rare. And at times, that got frustrating. I'd start to wonder if what I was doing was any good at all, if I'd ever write something good enough to be considered "finished."

But then, once in a while, I'd do something well, and he'd kind of nod and me and go, "good job" or "that was a well-planned presentation."

And because those words were so rare, you knew they meant a lot - that a "good job" from him was equal to the most flowing and effusive praise of other people. Maybe even worth MORE.

I knew another faculty member who was effusive in his praise. And while it was fun to take a seminar from him - because EVERYTHING you did was great and impressive and innovative, after a while you started to wonder: what I'm doing really can't be that glorious. And wait, last week Dingleberry gave a really cruddy seminar and the prof talked about how great it was. Something's not right here.

And then, I'd naturally begin to wonder: was my seminar actually as bad as Dingleberry's, but I didn't realize it at the time because of the gushing praise?

And then I'd go back to my adviser, and write something, and rewrite it five times, and finally he'd say, "OK, this is good enough." And you actually felt like it WAS. Like the guy wasn't blowing smoke; what you had done was actually worthy.

And I saw other people going through grad school who got praised all the time - and they didn't really develop (or they let atrophy) the sense of critical reading, of being able to look at something and go, "This needs work" (ironically, one of my adviser's favorite phrases).

And I wonder if that's not what happened to the people writing this paper. I've seen it in some areas of the conservation community. For those of you not in the know - there are kind of three (maybe more) levels in the conservation community. Or maybe not levels, maybe just schools of thought. One is the academic. These are people with backgrounds like mine - they came through a tough, traditional graduate program. They had to work hard. They tend to expect good experimental design and quantification. And they really expect experiments be done with things like controls, or with baseline studies done before anything is changed - they are people who don't want to draw conclusions without good evidence. And then there's more of an NGO type community. They've been influenced by academic conservation, they try to use good experimental design and such. Maybe their studies aren't quite as rigorous; maybe they didn't think to take baseline data before removing an invasive species or burning a prairie. But they do want to learn from the academics; they recognize that more rigor is a good thing.

And then there's the "enthusiast" community. For them, every conservation-oriented activity is GREAT. They are SAVING THE EARTH. (and yes, they tend to SPEAK IN CAPITALS.) There's a certain amount of "woo" (to use the Junkfood Science term) at work in some people's thinking - there's a certain degree of mysticism.

Now, don't get me wrong - some kinds of mysticism are good. I like that there are mysteries of the faith, that there are things we don't fully understand. But I don't really believe that, for example, trees "weep" when they get other trees grown up around them. Oh, they may suffer the effects of competition for water or light, but they are TREES. They do not, as far as we have been able to determine, FEEL.

So it bugs me when someone speaks - in a serious and non-jovial manner - about trees "weeping" because they're surrounded by other trees, or how the land "cries out" to them, that kind of stuff.

Partly because it's not scientific - but partly because that kind of attitude is not too far off from setting yourself up as a "special" person, as some kind of "empath" - and perhaps even the "chosen one," the one who is to be the savior of that particular forest or whatever.

And so then the rest of the people working on that project, as great as their skills are, become less, because see, they don't have that "special feeling."

And I hate that.

And it leads to sloppy thinking. People who buy into this concept - who either tip over all the way into the crazy-earth-person enthusiasm, or even the people who aren't that far gone, but who are going to clap and cheer ANYTHING that is done - they tend NOT to do good experimentation. Controls? We don't need no stinking controls! We know that what we are doing is GOOD and RIGHT and we are SAVING THE EARTH!

I've actually had enthusiast-types tell me, "You scientists. Nothing would EVER get done if you ran the show. Step back and let the people who CARE do their work."

And then you get things happening like mongoose being introduced to Hawaii to take care of the rats - and then 50 or 60 years later, the scientists wind up chronicling how that killed off some of the native birds, thanks to the Law of Unexpected Consequences. But of course, the enthusiasts are long since moved onto another project, and anyway, it's not their fault that things got screwed up.

And that's the sense I get from this paper - that it was written by someone who had more caring than scientific background, someone who was so pressed to put their thoughts and feelings down on the paper that ordinary rules of organization and syntax no longer applied.

And sadly - what we are editing is a scientific proceedings, not a fan magazine. So I'm going to make what suggestions I can for improvement but I suspect they will be met with howling anger - with the "how dare this person" tamper with their lovely plan. But whatever. That's life. Unfortunately reality isn't as pretty as hope.

Which is why I'll be glad when the inauguration is over and we get back (I expect) to the work of reality. There's only so much gushing praise of someone I can stand to hear.

Friday, January 16, 2009

weeny gripe

I'm reviewing an article for publication in the proceedings of a conference I attend.

oh my bob, the writing is so disorganized. It makes my head hurt. The author refers to these sites that are in Ontario and they talk about them as if everyone knows (of course!) exactly where they are and what they are like. And they use abbreviations without, in some cases, giving an initial reference so we know what they are.

And there's lots of Canuck-centric jargon. I had never heard some of the terms before. I asked a colleague who has worked and lived more places than I if he had ever heard a particular term, and this was the response I got:


Then I Googled it and it came up on a bunch of Canadian sites. So I don't know if I'll get bashed for being the Ugly American if I point out that not everyone in the world uses the same terminology, eh?

So I don't know. So far the paper seems pretty much a FAIL to me; it feels like it was written in a stream-of-consciousness mode, where the author is all, "Oh, yeah, here's this other thing I thought of. Oh, and here's another problem we had." And while stream-of-consciousness is fine for blogs and such, it's not right for scholarly papers.

The whole thing is just a hot mess, as the cool kids say. (Do they still say that? Or have they moved on to a new phrase?)

Amazing news story

Plane crashes in water, no one dies, passengers wait on wing until rescued.

Capt. Sullenberger has proven that it is possible - at least some of the time - for passengers to survive an emergency water landing.

Even more - apparently he maneuvered to miss hitting buildings while his plane was disabled.

No one died. 155 people basically walked off that plane.

I know that there are the usual people coming out and saying, "He did what he was trained to do so he was not a hero" but I say bosh, the man IS a hero in my book. He kept his cool. He remembered what he had learned. He avoided hurting anyone on the ground. And all his passengers and crew survived.

God bless you, Capt. Sullenberger.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oh great

I guess it's time for me to start stockpiling this stuff, because SOMEONE will probably insist it be taken off the market soon.

I perhaps have to explain: I canNOT tolerate decongestants. Any of 'em. They speed up my heart rate, raise my blood pressure and generally make me miserable. So when I get a cold or am having allergy problems, the two things I can do is take Guafenisin (sometimes now known as "mucinex") and put Vick's on before I go to sleep.

While it may not MAKE you better, it sure makes you feel like you're breathing better. I've used it for years and never had a negative side effect. (Of course, you have to be smart enough not to eat the stuff or something). Vick's has contributed to my increased comfort while infected with a cold many a time.

Another, off label use: it will often help with low-grade skin fungal infections. Now, I wouldn't use it in the "sensitive" regions, but I did have a small one under an arm once (it happens, especially in the humid summers where I live) and the Vicks cleared it up. And my brother uses it for the patches he gets on his scalp under where his bike helmet hits. It's cheaper and less likely to cause side effects than stuff like ketoconozole.

It frustrates me when researchers go looking for a "reason" why some product isn't safe, because you can pretty much bet that Those Who Would Wrap Everyone in Bubble Wrap will demand its banning.

Spank you very much

It seems to be my day. (And no, not "spank" in any remotely good way. Though I didn't realize there existed people who thought there was an allegedly GOOD way until I was well over 20).

First: got a phone call yesterday afternoon from some random potential student. I had already left for the day (it was 4 pm, I had a 6:30 meeting at church, I had been on campus since before 7).

So I called him back.

First off - he's huffy because when he showed up on campus (AFTER 4 pm, because the call was from his car), of the three people who could have helped him, one was in class, one (me) had gone for the day, and the third was not to be found.

I'm sorry - but isn't it common practice to, if you need to meet with someone specific, call BEFORE you leave? Especially if you're driving, like, an hour to get there?

But anyway. The other thing that got me were the long............... pauses.......... in what he said. A couple times I nearly asked if he was still there because he stopped midsentence and waited for 15 seconds or so.

In the end? He had nothing I could really help with over the phone. He wanted to know if he had figured out the correct plan of study but didn't have a transcript from his old school in front of him to discuss classes with me.

I asked him if he had questions and then there was another long pause and he said, "I had one yesterday but I can't think of it now."

He said he was thinking of going to us, or to a competing school in another part of the state. I have a feeling I just lost a student for us.

But whatever. I'm not sure I could deal with someone who can't complete a sentence within its normal statute of limitations.

But I'm still irked about that "Wah, I showed up on campus unannounced at 4:30 on what is for many faculty the busiest day of the week and you weren't there to HELP me" attitude. That expectation that our whole lives revolve around us sitting in our office waiting for people wanting to be helped on a moment's notice.

Seriously - if I'm driving more than a half-hour to go to a SMALL BUSINESS I call them first to be sure they're open even if it's normal business hours. People chip teeth or their kids fall off the slide at school or other emergencies come up.

The second one? We were asked - nay, told - to cancel all our classes one day this semester for a certain particular thing that will remain nameless in the interest of trying to preserve my anonymity.

We were only ever asked to cancel morning classes in the past; while a bother, it was OK. But now I am losing an entire week's worth of lab in one of my classes.

I grumped about it, privately, to colleagues. But apparently some people grumped publicly to the individual making the request. Because today he sent us what I very much think is a "spank you very much" letter explaining why and attaching a long article justifying the reason. (I assume we are not expected to read it).

But there was just this petulant tone about the whole thing that bugged me. Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but it still bugged me.

Look, you asked people to do something that they didn't like. Some people complained because they didn't KNOW the justification - you didn't give it ahead of time.

I don't know; some days it feels almost like everyone around me got up on the wrong side of the bed. Not a good feeling.


I know this is petty and whiny, but whatever. It's my blog. You don't have to read this post if you don't want to.

so here goes:

For the love of Mike, why are they doing stories about Valentine's Day on the local news already?!?!?!?! I turned on the local news channel to see about the weather - because it got very cold here over night, supposedly, and I wanted to know just how cold it was going to be so I could plan to dress appropriately (maybe no one around here has ever heard of that concept; certainly some of my students seem not to have).

But NOOOOOOO. They had the set all dolled up with pink, white, and red flowers, teddy bears, heart balloons. All that crap. They had a local florist on supposedly doing a story on pre-ordering for Valentine's Day. (But which was really a pretty transparent free-advertising piece for the florist. My local news does this All. The. Time. Any time a big gift-giving holiday comes up, they get local stores on to ostensibly talk about it but really to hawk their wares. Every time there's something like St. Patrick's Day, or Fourth of July, or some other holiday that people might conceivably go out to eat, there's some local restauranteur put on to remind people that he's open and serving. It makes me wild because not only is it free advertising during the actual program, but they will spend long amounts of loving attention on it - and then not talk about stuff like, oh, I don't know, the fact that there is an escaped felon at large in the community. I kind of would prefer knowing whether or not I risked being taken hostage on my way to work than that the local beer joint is doing a corned beef and cabbage special for St. Patty's)

And Valentine's Day puts me in a bad mood anyway. Yes, I know, it's childish. It's getting worked up over something small. But it's got to be one of the most damn exclusive "holidays" out there. The only worse thing would be to declare a day "Married Couple with Biological Children Day!" - so the divorced parents, childless couples, and people who adopted can be made to feel like failures.

Because, Valetine's Day, even though I try not to let it, does make me feel a little bit like a failure. The one thing I have not managed to achieve in my life is a long-term relationship (preferably marriage). Part of it is that I'm picky. Part of it is probably it wasn't in the cards for me, for whatever reason is unknown to me (and God? If you're listening? I hope it's a REALLY good reason).

I hate Valentine's Day for other, more abstract, reasons: it is telling people that they need to "demonstrate" their love for that Special Someone with some kind of a gift, preferably an expensive one. It, in some cases, is almost presented as a Get Out Of Jail Free card - that is, it's OK to crab at your husband other days of the year, it's OK to ignore that your wife is about to melt down and has asked you three times to help her get the kids ready for school - because you've bought flowers or candy or something.

But I have to admit the real nugget of burning dislike I have for the day is that it allows people who are part of a couple to be smug and exclusive and to say "Look what I got!" (and yes, I've had people do that to me - women come by SPECIFICALLY to show me the new jewelry or flowers or whatever. And it's not, in some cases, a "I'm really happy and can't resist sharing" impulse, but it's a "Look at me! I'm so great! I'm better than you because I have a MAN!" impulse. And I'm sorry, but anyone who does that - who flaunts their couple-ness as a way of trying to make themselves feel better, or to make themselves seem better than someone who is not part of a couple, well, they can just suck it. Because that's really a shabby thing to do to a person who may ALREADY be a little low because they're being reminded that they are ALONE on the couple day of all couple days.)

I don't know. It was easier, in some ways, in grade school, where you gave cards to your friends and mmmmmmaaaayyyybbbbbeee to the boy (in my case) you had a wee little crush on, and if you were incredibly lucky, you'd get a card from that boy. But that was the whole extent of it - there was far less agony, far less feeling bereft. Because even if Mark D. didn't send you a card, at least your friends did. So you felt like someone still loved you. And then you had your cup of red Hi-C punch and a cupcake with pink frosting, and you didn't have Math in the afternoon because of the Valentine's Day party.

It got harder in high school. They did a couple fund-raisers: a carnation sale, and then, a couple years later, a candygram sale. None of my friends or I ever got carnations. One year one of the girls who had, ahem, a "reputation" got a whole bunch of them. Which we laughed about, I'm ashamed to admit. But we sent candygrams to each other and put funny cryptic messages on them. (I actually still have a couple of those). And somehow that helped, having a couple friends in the same boat to sit back and laugh about it with.

But as an adult - either everyone around me is part of a couple, or the few other uncoupled types I know, they seem too mature to be bugged by it. (And that also makes me feel bad, I have to admit: why can't I just Woman Up and ignore the day? I say I will every year, but I never quite manage). And so there's no one like K. or T. or M. to sit at lunch with and snicker and be scandalized that D. got 15 carnations, and oh my gosh, I bet they're from different guys, and I wonder, are they guys she put out for or just ones who hope she'll put out for them?

Yeah, yeah, petty and terrible, I know. But I do know that D. grew up and got married and apparently has a nice life. So don't feel too bad for her.

This is just one of the times I kind of wish my old gang was still around me - that we could sit around and snark on all the stupid stuff that we deep down kind of hurt about. K. and T. are married - I know K. is happily married but I've not heard from T. in a while. M. I don't know, I've totally lost track of her.

But it would be nice, as I said, to have someone to sit with and snark about that stuff - about the ads showing women getting all excited because their husbands got them Lexuses (Lexi?) for the day, or the diamond ads like that one with the old couple walking hand in hand that secretly makes me cry (because dammit, I want that, I want someone to grow old with and still walk hand in hand with when I'm 75) but I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that it does make me cry...

Maybe you know what I mean.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

False alarm

Well, I over-worried about my someday-to-be-former colleague.

The "concerns about replacing her" are for the FALL. So, no bad health problems, no bad budget cutting - it's just that she wants to do what she'd been planning for a while, to be a full-time grandma, and decided it was time to give notice now so we could plan.

(I was freaked by her cleaning out her office, but I guess she's just getting a start now while she has time. I will say I did profit to the tune of several expensive books that I was too cheap to buy for myself, and which she says she won't be using in her retirement.)

I'll miss having her around - but I'm relieved that she's ending her career with us because she has a way she prefers to spend her time.

And I'm also relieved I won't be hit with an unexpected extra class to teach. I'd do it if I HAD to - but I'd much, much rather not.

Our enrollment LOOKED down, but now it's shot up in the last day or two. I guess people are either finding the money (or praying they will), or are deciding that completing that degree will make them more marketable.

Uh oh

One of my colleagues - she has been an "instructor" which means it's a non-tenure-track position - is packing up her office. And the department chair alluded to "how are we going to cover her classes."

I HOPE it is not a situation of her having to leave (she's had a variety of health issues the past year, plus she and her husband had plans to move at some point) or her being let go. But somehow I don't think this is "long term planning of how we can cover her position STARTING IN THE SUMMER."

Crap. I haven't even processed the whole "she's leaving the department" thing in the social sense - this was someone I regard as a friend, even though we haven't hung out much lately because of our schedules. It'll hit me in a day or so, that I won't have her around to talk to, and then I'll be all sad about that. Right now I'm kind of in panic-mode about how we will cover her classes and how much extra work we are all going to need to do.

A quick check of the website - she teaches 3 sections of the intro majors class, plus five of the labs for that class.

I have never taught the class but I have taught the labs.

I am a bit fearful right now that "how we are going to plan" will mean people winding up with giant unpaid overloads. (I already have an overload this semester, but it's only 1 credit. Adding a section of the lecture would take me up to 16 credit hours).

If this was a "let go for budget reasons" situation, it's really unconscionable for the powers that be to pull it so fast. (If it's an "I have to leave for health reasons" I will pray for her and feel sad, but will be more understanding).

I could teach a lab section and I GUESS I would volunteer to. But I really don't want to teach the lecture section - there is one that would fit in my schedule, but it would be a new prep on top of another new prep, plus a class that is in the process of being highly modified. And I already do a lot in the way of "service" that some folks don't do. And I do more research than some folks.

And I was planning on starting piano lessons this spring, and if I have to teach 16 credit hours, there will be no way I can do that. I'll have to call my teacher and tell her I can't do it because I will have no time to practice. (And I may have to sharply curtail blogging and blog reading).

This makes me very sad. I hope we can line up some adjunct who'd be willing to do it but I'm not hopeful.

I hope I'm misinterpreting the office-cleaning and it's just a "I'm getting ready for when I leave at the end of this semester" and not "I'm going to be gone next week."

Once again: I know why things have to change but the eight-year-old in me is throwing a tantrum right now about the fact that they DO change.

Monday, January 12, 2009

stupid spam again

Got one today: "Wet and pink and barely legal."

Welcome to the underground world of betting on naked mole-rat swimming races!

Or at least, I assume that's what it's about....

wow, so many kindred spirits

Chewing on tinfoil is just it, Joel. I love the image of "born to raise the sons of Earth" and the thought of "raising each child" sounds too much like the tired old "each one, teach one" or "It takes a village..." (I always interpreted "Raise the sons of Earth" as including an allusion to Adam, and of course the "raise" is not "raise" in the sense of "bring up a child" but in the senses of "elevate" and "raise from the dead")

As for the tradition stuff - yes. There are so many great old hymns that I love. One thing that troubles me is that a lot of the mainline churches are going to "contemporary" vs. "traditional" services - so the "contemporary" service is all praise songs, all the time. And don't get me wrong - some of the praise songs are really good and will probably become part of the canonical music over the years. But some of them are *terrible,* because the winnowing process that happened with the 400 year old stuff has not happened with them yet.

But my biggest problem is that there is NO use of the traditional hymns, at least in the "contemporary" services I have been to - it's like they're gone down the Memory Hole. And as one of my mom's friends worries - the kids of the "contemporary service" generation (mostly MY generation, I have to say) are not learning those hymns. Not "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Not "For the beauty of the earth" (which is one of my favorite hymns EVER and if it's not too inappropriate-seeming, one that I want played at my funeral (hopefully some 60+ years in the future still). Not even "Amazing Grace," in some cases.

(We don't have a contemporary service at my church - sadly, the congregation is barely big enough to support a single, traditional service. We do sing a few of the more sedate "praise songs" once in a while, though. And the few other people around my age that belong to the congregation have never complained about the traditional hymns; in fact, a number of them have remarked that they appreciate that we are honoring the musical heritage of the church)

It seems to me, musically speaking, that they're being cut off at the knees. I love those old hymns - I love them both because so many of them are so beautiful (words, music, and the images they evoke) but also because those are the hymns my grandma sang, when I was a tiny child visiting her. And the hymns my mom would sing as she was going about her chores around the house. They are familiar and they speak to me not just of sitting in the big dim church between my parents, but of sitting under the dining room table* playing with my Fisher-Price people, while my mom cleaned house or sewed.

(*I used to like to play under the dining room table - my mom let me, she'd pull out the chairs a little to make more room. It was kind of like a little cave and there was enough space to set up a couple of my Fisher Price sets or to set up with my little plastic zoo animals. I guess she liked to let me play there because then she knew right where I was, and she tended to figure that it was better that her kids be happy and occupied, if in a slightly idiosyncratic place, than to have them bored and underfoot)

Anyway. I worry a bit when tradition gets wholly thrown over in favor of the "new;" I think some of the cultural issues we are facing today is the fact that so often the generations don't have common touchstones or even really a common vocabulary.

I guess at least some of you agree with me...

Ugly words

Below, I was talking about "gender neutralization." (And I admit it; even though I realize God isn't some guy sitting on an armchair made out of clouds, I still am jarred when someone refers to God as "she" because I think of God as male, even though I realize God transcends such things).

And Ken mentioned "feperson." (Reminds me of the joke on the Simpsons back when it was funny - the kids said, "The mailman's coming!" and Marge reminded them their delivery person was a lady, so then they changed it to "The Femaleman's coming!")

Well, I have one that can top that. And I THINK the person who said this was being serious...this was back, I think, junior year in college, in an intro stats class. A young woman who was apparently trying her wings at being semi-radical said: "Why do we have to call it MANufacturing? Shouldn't it be PERSONufacturing instead?"

Etymology FAIL.

(Manufacture actually comes from the root "manu-" meaning "hand." Literally, it means "things made by hand." No indication of to which gender those hands belong.)

I, having had a couple Linguistics classes (and also generally knowing such things from having, you know, read books and stuff) just sat there and kind of rolled my eyes. I have to admit it I kind of love it when someone goes off on one of those Emily Litella rants. Sadly, the prof did not smack her down. (I probably would have, but very quietly and very graciously, by simply remarking that the root word was "manu" meaning hand and not "man" meaning, well, man)

Of course, this was also at a school that agonized over the term "freshman" and wanted to replace it with the ugly-if-somewhat-traditional "Frosh" or the clunky "first-year students." (Frankly, I think maybe a better term might be "fresh meat" but I suppose that excludes the vegetarians).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A question

This is for those of you who are Catholic. (Or, I suppose, if you're Jewish, as well: though I know far less about how those services are conducted). You sing hymns or songs in the service, right? (And I mean other than the sort of response-songs like what we Prods call "Doxology" or "Gloria Patri")

Has there been a move afoot to "gender neutralize" some of the traditional hymns? I mean, do stuff like change "man" to "human" or "son" (except when referring to God's Son, of course) to "child"?

The congregation I belong to now is pretty old-school and conservative and the hymnbooks we use have the original traditional words. But my parents' congregation recently got new hymnbooks...and what seems like a distressingly large number of the hymns have the little abbreviation "alt." after the author's name, indicating the words have been altered. Usually it's a gender neutralization thing, but also references to warfare were removed as much as possible (so they said in the introduction, which I flipped to after finding one of the familiar hymns to me was no longer quite so), as were references to royalty (apparently that last because it seemed somehow classist to the editors. So a lot of the Christ the King references were changed, as were references to Lord)

Now, I won't go so far as my brother does and pronounce it "kind of Orwellian" (and yes, he said that), but it bugs me. I learned the hymns one way and it's jarring to sing them another. (And in some cases I didn't.)

I realize that there are some people who really have a hard time with "man" being the general form of "men and women" or who feel excluded or troubled or something like that. But I guess the updaters do not consider those of us who are troubled to think that Charles Wesley's (or whomever's) original intent has been slightly changed. Or that their art has been altered - while it might not rise to the level of putting boxers on Michelangelo's "David," it is still changing what someone else made.

In some cases the changes are not a big deal. In a few they may even sound better. But in a couple - they were just jarring and uncomfortable and didn't scan right any more. (And yes, scansion sort of matters to me).

I don't know. I realize this is the wave of the future but sometimes I wonder if trying to update too much either amounts to whitewashing the past or to failing to give people credit for seeing the word "man" and mentally figuring that women are included as well.

I do wonder what some of the old-time hymnwriters would say about it - Wesley, and Fanny Crosby, and Isaac Watts. Would they not mind, as long as their music was still being used to praise God? Or would they feel a certain discomfort, perhaps even annoyance, that their words were altered?


I had left a certain particular channel on (which shall remain nameless but which I will say is one that has gone dangerously off-topic in the past couple years, replacing their normal useful reporting with speculative stories that Could Happen Tomorrow and having extremely nannying programming on how we must change our lives to save the planet).

I was working on something I couldn't immediately get up from to find the remote, when the nannying program came on.

And dammit, my head nearly exploded. It featured a Famous Author, who has apparently made it a Project to eat locally - in fact, to only eat food (with three exceptions; I'll refer back to that later) that she and her family grew.

And of course, there's so much of the self-congratulatory patting-on-the-back I wanted to vomit. How healthy we all are! So much better than ALL THE OTHER AMERICANS who eat their McSlop or the stuff in cartoony boxes from the grocery store! How enlightened we are! We now know where eggs come from! We are just full of goodness and health!

Well, you're full of SOMETHING.

Look. I have no problem with people choosing to do this. But all too often, they get so caught up in it (There is no zealot like a convert, the old saying goes) that they begin to believe that:

a. They can save the world, if they just convince enough people to do as they do. And then everyone will love them!

b. Everyone SHOULD do as they do, even if it means forcing them through taxes or other coercive measures.

Look, Author Lady. I am happy that you were able to raise your own chickens and turkeys and grow your own produce. But you are also Rich Author Lady who can devote many hours a day to tending gardens and poults and do not need to work 5-6 days of the week for 7 to 8 hours most of those days.

Those of us mere mortals, who must do that - there's no way in hell we can raise our own food. I know; I've tried growing tomatoes, beans, beets, and other things. The beans were moderately successful; the tomatoes, either they get eaten by possums, or it's too dry out (and I don't have time to be home watering during the optimal hours of the day) or they get blossom-end rot or something.

And Famous Author Lady? Know what I'm doing in my job that requires me to use the (apparently) Gaia-raping grocery store? I'm helping prepare the NEXT FREAKING GENERATION OF DOCTORS AND NURSES, among other things. So when some of your disciples who live in less amenable climates than you apparently do wind up coming down with scurvy or beriberi or some damn thing because all they have to eat all winter that is locally-grown are a few shriveled turnips and the remains of the hogs they butchered in the fall, there'll be someone out there who can save their sorry asses.

(Seriously, that is something I wonder about with the really hard-core "eat local" folks - will they wind up developing some of the vitamin deficiencies that we haven't seen in 80 years because of the wider availability of produce year-round? Just like the people who refuse to vaccinate their special snowflake of a child against polio - because vaccines are BAD and they know it because Jenny McCarthy told them so - have never, ever seen an actual case of infant paralysis, and would be hieing their kid to the doctor for the needle if they had - this seems to me to be a case of people not knowing history, not knowing what the "bad old days" really were like).

The other thing is - apparently Famous Author lives in some watered valley in New Mexico or somewhere that is apparently a virtual Garden of Eden, where almost anything will grow. As I said, I've tried beans, tomatoes, beets, watermelons, and squash where I lived. The beans were pretty good. The tomatoes, some years they produce, some years the tomatoes wither on the vines, some years animals get them. The beets died. (I can't get the hang of when to plant things here). Both the melons and the squash were taken down by borers. There is some member of the animal kingdom that will kill and eat almost any garden food you try to grow. So for me, honestly? It is more cost-effective to go to the "evil" supermarket and buy my produce pre-grown. (Or go to the apparently less-evil Farmer's Market, though I have it on good authority that some of their food is "imported" from a produce agent - and therefore, not locally grown).

We just do NOT have good growing conditions where I live. We can raise peanuts, I guess, and cattle, and hogs, and we used to grow cotton, before cotton was deemed an Evil Crop (high pesticide requirement). I can't live on peanut-butter covered bacon or steak with a side of boiled peanuts.

And yeah, yeah, by her lights, maybe people shouldn't live here. But we do, and this is where my job is, and I'm unwilling to chuck it to live in a yurt and brew my own yogurt.

Oh, the "three exceptions" to eating local? They didn't mention two of them but one was coffee. And this was brought up just after a big point was made about how the kids weren't able to go and get McDonald's French Fries any more. And I thought, "Nice. They make "exceptions" but they're for stuff the parents eat; the kids remain deprived." (Then again, I don't even like coffee).

The other thing - this was an entire family. The kids, the husband (you didn't see much of him; maybe he wasn't as down with the project as his wife) were available to help out. For people like me, with only me to depend on - I'd starve. Or I'd be shipped off to some kind of communal-living situation where I'd wind up curled up in the fetal position on the dining room floor, quietly sobbing and eating my hair, because I really canNOT stand to live in close quarters with other people I don't know well, to listen to their endless braying conversations, to be subjected to their own personal soapbox issues, to have someone eat my secret smuggled-in stash of chocolate because it's "contraband" (not being "local").

I think one of my biggest frustrations is with people who think because something works for THEM, it will work for EVERYONE - and what's more, everyone should adopt what they are doing, whether they want to or not. And this is usually coupled with a strong evangelistic vigor for whatever-it-is and a sense of their being a "voice crying in the wilderness" - that they are here to drag others, kicking and screaming if need be, into the enlightenment they have found, so that EVERYONE can be as superior a person as they now are.

(Actually, I wonder about that last. Some of the people with this attitude ("I lost weight! You can too!" "I ditched my television and I feel so much better now!" "I stopped buying anything but the bare necessities!") seem to have a need to feel superior to others - and so, when everyone has converted, they may need to find some new cause to follow so they can once again distinguish themselves from the pack.

I know, I know - this person is probably just a harmless idiot and I shouldn't get so overwrought at what she's saying. But it really rubs me the wrong way to hear someone who has more money and free time than I do preaching at me about how I should go to (what would amount for me to) an extreme and time-consuming effort to only eat food grown within 200 miles or whatever the proposed limit is of where I live. (And then have them sit back, smile, and sip their imported coffee while I agonize how I will live in a World Without Orange Juice.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

A bit of vintage.

I love things from the past. It fascinates me to think of how people lived. And I find a lot of the music from many years before I was born more pleasing to my ear than what is supposedly the music of "my" generation.

I was driving to the Lowe's today (needed a new filter for the furnace WHICH THEY DID NOT HAVE IN THE SIZE I NEEDED - boo, Lowe's), the title "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" popped into my head.

I knew it as a WWII era British song, but had only heard the Manhattan Transfer version of it (which is very good, but is not of the same vintage as the original song).

A quick search of YouTube turned up Vera Lynn, songstress of WWII Britain (and, from what I remember reading of her, she did a great deal for the morale of the British people during the Blitz and afterward, some say almost as much as Churchill did.)

Normally I am not as big a fan of female singers than I am of male singers - the higher pitched voices are not as pleasing to my ear, and so often it seems women's voices sound a bit thin to me.

But I like Dame Lynn's (yes, she was later named a Dame of the British Empire) singing.

And amazingly, she is apparently still alive!

So here are a few Vera Lynn treats for those of you who may be unfamiliar:

This is the song that first made me look her up - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (Yes, spelled Berkeley but pronounced Barkley. It's a British thing, like "clerk" being pronounced "clark," I guess)

One of the archetypal songs of the war years - "White Cliffs of Dover." I can imagine thousands of Britons longing for peace and for life to return to "normal," while withstanding the privations of rationing and the horror of the Blitz, listening to this song and hoping and praying for the war to come to a good end.

Another well-known song, "We'll Meet Again." Probably better known to folks of my generation as the ending song (and a sadly ironic one at that) from Dr. Strangelove.

You know, I love these war-era songs; I love what they represent - people trying to remain cheery and hopeful. Perhaps, yes, it is whitewashing a bit, being a bit Pollyannish. But I think human beings NEED that kind of hope, to walk around knowing they will meet their loved one who is currently in the overseas armed forces again. To remember a time of peace and happiness and maybe if it wasn't really the Golden Era the song makes it out to be - I still think I prefer to gild the past a little during hard times, and hope that the future will be good again, rather than mire in the present unhappiness.

I think most of the "ordinary folks" of most countries like and need this kind of thing; we live on hope better than we can live on despair. We would rather sing of the simple beauties of our countryside or the quiet pleasures of peacetime life than we would sing of how terrible things are now.

"Banned" words

I always enjoy this. It's a bit of curmudgeonly commentary on words that are overused. Banned words from 2008, from LSSU.

So, what do I think of the list? Here are my thoughts:

Green (At least as used for anything other than the color)

Yes, please. Can we make this go away? It has been so over-used as to become useless. And in some cases "green" is used in such an annoying, holier-than-thou context, as in a person who has the plumbing re-routed in their house so that their toilet flushes with the graywater from their washing machine. And then of course someone else pipes up that they are even BETTER because they have a composting toilet. Feh.

And a lot of the stuff that's claimed to be "green" either really isn't, or really doesn't help that much: if you are driving 50 miles to drop off recyclables, that's really not that 'green.'

Carbon footprint or Carbon offsetting

Yes, another one I am heartily tired of. It's just a new way companies have of trying to attract buyers - this time, people who are filled with guilt by the fact that they produce carbon dioxide.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for conservation and a lot of conservation measures make tremendous sense, both environmentally AND economically. But tying yourself in knots over your carbon footprint drives me mad.

I'm waiting to see the Battle Royale between the "eat local, minimize your carbon footprint" people and the "you need to eat 18 servings of fruits and vegetables every day of your life and they need to be all different kinds of things." Because, at least in some places, those are two mutually incompatible goals: eating local may mean nothing but turnips and beets some months.


Eh, not really tired of this one I guess.

First Dude

As much as I might like Sarah Palin for other things, I do think this phrase contributes to the erosion of decorum and respect shown public officials in this country. I think we need MORE formality, not LESS.


I'm more fed up with the concept than I am with the word. However, it's reaching the joke stage: apparently there is an advertising campaign (and I dearly hope it is only that) where the pr0n industry claims it needs a bailout.

Wall Street/Main Street

I would be just fine if that pair of terms was never used in opposition again. The other thing is that it oversimplifies: Wall Street and Main Street are not diametrically opposed, as often the usage of the phrase suggests (I've heard it used to imply "The greedhead fat-cats on Main Street vs. Us Good People on Main Street) and the fact is, as one goes, so goes the other, eventually.

Besides, I'm suspicious of anything that can be used to foment class warfare, and I can see this being used that way.

"-Monkey" as a fashionable suffix

I guess I was not that aware that this was overused.

<3 as a symbol for "love"

Now, I kind of like this. Yes, it took me a while to figure out people weren't saying "less than 3" but I have to admit that it is kind of cute.

But then, I'm a girl. Your mileage may vary.

Icon or iconic

Yeah, I guess so. I have a bigger gripe when this term - or my personal pet hate, "Destined to become a classic!" - is applied to something that has not had a chance to prove itself yet. You do not become an icon by saying you are; a made-for-tv-movie does not become a classic because some adwriter deems it destined to be so.


This has been used enough that it has become meaningless. I never liked it.


I know there are some that love this word, but as far as I am concerned, it has two strikes against it: it is a portmanteau word, and it is a neologism.

Look, the idea of staying home over vacation is not some new burden imposed upon us by bad economic times. Do people really not remember the 70s? (Or was it just my family that skipped going on vacation a lot of years in that decade?). I grow frustrated with people who have no historical perspective acting as if this downturn is Teh Worst Evah! and there are all kinds of new insults and new deprivations we are having to face.

I also dislike the word because it sounds hokey; it sounds like someone trying to force false cheer, to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

As a matter of fact, Staying Home for Vacation, if you do it right, is really not that bad. But somehow, the term Staycation, to me, makes me sound like it's a "we're taking our medicine but smiling bravely through it but we're still going to tell you all about it, poor pitiful us" sort of thing.

Just say you're taking a VACATION, dangit.

Desperate search

Typical news hyperbole. In other words, justified in being on the list.

I do wish that a couple of the news channels (FOX is bad for this but Nancy Grace has apparently made a career of it) that expend hours and hours upon the "desperate search" for someone who is missing - usually a young cute thin white woman. Yes, it's a tragedy for the people who love that person. But it seems so exploitative and so designed to manipulate the emotions and fears of the people watching.

Not so much

You know, this one really does not bug me. Perhaps I just haven't seen it overused.

"Winner of five nominations"

See "Destined to become a classic!" above. Also - when is the last time someone "won" a nomination?

"It's that time of year again"

Yup. Especially when it's used in the same sense that "Now more than ever" was used about seven years ago: "Go out and buy or the terrorists and America-haters win!"

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A more cynical take:

I don't agree with this wholeheartedly; I have relatively few students who "only want to be told how right they are and how good they are." (Though the few that I do have tend to stick out in my mind). But I do think Marsalis kind of nails the entitlement phenomenon a lot of us in education see:

(Oh, tiny language warning at the beginning, but I think it's justified)

I do like his comment on how some people are more interested in looking like they are something than they are at BEING that thing, and it "works, as long as everyone is winking at it at the same time." Though that may be more true in other disciplines than it is in the sciences; at least among my students, they will call B.S. on their fellow students if they think their fellow students are full of it.

Cycle of life

I realized last night that this year - this April, in fact - will mark the 10th anniversary of my successfully completing and defending my doctoral dissertation.

It doesn't seem that long.

I remember the endless revisions, the drafts that came back to me totally marked in red pen, the times I changed stuff in one draft just to have my adviser* tell me to change it BACK in the next draft (at times it was as if he didn't remember he disapproved of the way I had written it previously). All that work, all that labor.

(*Firefox tells me that "adviser" is correct and "advisor" is wrong, but somehow "advisor" looks more like the correct spelling to me)

But I kept with it. I maintain that a big part of the value of someone having a Ph.D. attached to their name is not so much whatever contribution they made (though part of my dissertation was ultimately published, I have no illusions that it is anything but a tiny scrap of mortar in the wall of knowledge about prairies that we are trying to build), but that they have proven they can make it through the process, that they have the kind of persistence and internal motivation to make it.

Which is why I dig in my heels at any attempts to dumb-down the process or make it "easier." Yes, it can be made "kinder," perhaps, but perhaps it should not be TOO kind, as the academic publishing world is nothing if not cold and heartless.

Wait, here is a dissertation revision in LOLcat form:

Now, my adviser never actually threatened to edit my face (I suspect he would have been in a heap of trouble if he had*), but I do remember a few arguments over style and content and HOW data should be analyzed where we both wound up walking out of the conference room in opposite directions, grumbling that we needed a new adviser - or a new student.

(*And not necessarily trouble of the EEOC kind: I could TOTALLY have taken him as he was shorter than I was, a good 30 pounds lighter, and his reflexes were 30 years slower than mine. Also, I worked out.)

But anyway.

This week I get a thesis from a student to review myself. I am on her committee. And so it continues, the cycle of life: my adviser retired this past year, now I pick up the baton. I will never be quite as busy with students as he was; my department is much smaller and we only have Master's students, and far fewer of them at that. But it's an interesting thing to think about.


Did something I'd been dreading this morning: read my evaluation comments. I am pleased to report that there wasn't anything HORRIBLE; one person did complain that I didn't get stuff up on the online presence for the course fast enough (A fair enough criticism; I probably need to set aside time two days a week when I will update the sites, and tell the students that those are the times to expect updates.)

But several of them declared me a "great teacher" or "very caring," which while I can't use them to IMPROVE or anything, are at least reassuring that I'm on a decent path. (One person said that they could think of nothing that needed to be changed in the class). I even got several positive comments from my "hard" class, so that is good.

Most of the negative comments regarded the class over which I have no control of the syllabus/how it's run: several of the students wanted homework assignments in addition to the exams, and I'd agree, but it's out of my control - the committee in charge of the class decided not to do it that way. So I'm not bugged by those comments, beyond the fact that I really DID know better (I wanted homework and lobbied for it).

So, a new semester beckons; I am writing my syllabi today. I hope it is a good one.