Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have a ton to do before I bring my friend to the airport and pick my little brother up from it today, so I'm afraid there's no real post today.  If you're really disappointed about this, I did save this photo to cheer you up--
It came from a website I use often to cheer myself up when stressed-- That Cute Site.  Their caption references the classic Merrie Melodies short "I Love to Singa", so I contend that the owl is dancing.  My friend Will believes he's doing kung fu, so go with whichever explanation you think works better!

Don't forget to fill out the poll before it closes tonight and have a great holiday!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Just Breathe

Looks like randomness is winning!  Which is good, because today, we're going really random.

This past weekend, I was competing at the Ohio Star Ball, the National Collegiate Ballroom Championships, in Columbus, Ohio.  While I'm exhausted now, with homework to do still, it was a great weekend.  Our team is incredible; although I left after my dances and haven't heard the final verdict yet, I'm pretty sure we won the competition for the 7th year in a row.  We also got to see some professional shows, which are ridiculously awesome.  My partner and I did pretty well too, so that's another benefit.

The downside of this all is that I'm now slightly sick.  I always get stuffy from the recycled air in hotel rooms, and I'm sure the lack of sleep didn't help.  What's worst about this isn't that I feel awful, because it's really not too bad, but that I hate breathing through my mouth.

This led me to discover that it's actually bad for you to breathe through your mouth regularly.  There's a whole Wikipedia article on it.  Not a legitimate source, I know, but I also found some articles by doctors on the subject.  Wikipedia is just easier to read.  It says, "Mouth breathing in children can be a cause of abnormal facial growth primarily in the upper and lower jaw shape".  What is that, you ask?  Long face syndrome, as far as I can tell, is an imbalance in the growth of the jaw that results in an overbite, an inability to close the mouth fully and even a small chin.  To illustrate, check out the photos here, and the video on how this issue can be surgically corrected here.  Neither the condition nor the corrective surgery look like fun to me.

Mouth breathing isn't just bad for children though.  In adults, it's known to dry out the mouth and lungs (as air isn't warmed or filtered the way it is when breathing through the nose), which contributes to halitosis.  In ballroom, bad breath is the last thing you want your partner to have, so watch out if your ever looking for a partner!  It's a good thing for all of us that the competition is over, as I wasn't the only stuffy one on the team.  Mouth breathing is also comorbid with (has an effect on, is affected by or both) sleep apnea, asthma, snoring, and obesity.  Not pleasant.

And it gets worse!  I was unaware of this, but in addition to these physical issues associated with it, the term "mouth breather" is apparently an insult, meaning that the person is stupid.  I can see where this comes from-- breathing through the mouth necessarily requires a slack jaw, which we tend to associate with stupidity (i.e. the phrase "slack-jawed idiot).  I didn't know it was officially considered an insult, but if Wikipedia says so, I'll listen, at least in this case.

With all this negativity, I can only hope that I'm reacting poorly to the hotel's ventilation system, rather than actually being sick.  Wouldn't want to be a mouth breather for too long if it's so unhealthy!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


This blog has now been around for a bit, and thus far, has actually garnered a small number of readers, if my Google Analytics are to be believed.  So first, thanks to all you lovely people who take the time to read this.  I hope you enjoy it.

That being said, I'd love to have a better idea of what kind of things you like to read most.  Do you enjoy when I pretend that I still know science?  What about politics?  Video games? Cooking and how tos?  Or do you just enjoy the randomness of whatever I happen to think up that day?

I'd really like to know, so please take a sec to fill out this poll.  If you answer other, I'd love you to explain what you mean by that in the comments.  This poll will be up for a week, so give me some feedback.

And remember, Google Analytics is creepy-- I know how many people come here and what town you're accessing the blog from, so I'll know if you don't bother to help me out here!  Besides, it's all for you anyways.

Thanks guys!

What would you like to read?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Squirreled Away

You know what one of the funniest things about fall is?

Squirrels.  (They're also funny in these clips from Up.)

They are everywhere in the fall, running around, stealing stuff, burying it, and stocking up for winter.

But did you know that squirrels don't actually remember where they bury their nuts?  Well, at least red squirrels (the enormous ones we have here included) don't remember.  Scientists still aren't sure about gray squirrels, although I'm tempted to side with the scientists who believe they don't remember-- according to this article in the New York Times, gray squirrels don't find over 70% of the nuts they bury.  They're not going to be getting a call from Mensa any time soon, that's for sure.

This is not to say that squirrels are completely stupid, although the running-in-front-of-cars thing might say otherwise.  According to the same article, gray squirrels at least know which nuts last longer buried and which they should eat immediately.  And if nothing else, at least they're a helping hand in spreading acorns, acting as fluffy little agents of reforestation.

So try not to run them over next time one dives in front of your tires.  And if one looks lost, maybe you can help him find a place where he might have thought it a good idea to bury food, since your guess is likely as good as his.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Modding "Fair Use"

As I've mentioned a few times, my main area of interest is in the study of video games.  My undergraduate thesis, however, was about the Internet and some of its many legal issues, so an article that came out yesterday on Wired really caught my eye when I saw that it dealt with copyright law and video games.

The article, "Citing iPhone Ruling, Xbox Defendant Says Mod Chips Are Fair Use", deals with the case of Matthew Crippen, who is scheduled to face copyright violation charges in court any day now.  He could receive a sentence of three years in prison for-- get this-- modifying an Xbox.  Well, a couple of them, but it's still quite a novelty.

 The prosecution is arguing that Crippen's console modding violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)'s clause against hardware circumvention.  Which seems pretty cut and dried (although I am not an expert on this act by any means)-- he definitely was circumventing Microsoft's attempts to keep the console limited to their approved games and software. 

The whole case just got complicated, as copyright issues normally do, by Crippen's defense, which hopes to get him off on a "fair use" claim.  Fair use is a special caveat in copyright law that says the way in which you are using copyrighted material does not infringe upon the copyright or require special permission.  For instance, using a film clip for educational purposes in a classroom generally does not require permission from the copyright holder.  Parody and news reporting are generally covered as well, as are a few other things.

To support fair use as a defense for Crippin, his lawyers have cited July's iPhone discussion (Wired article here), where copyright lawyers were all trying to determine whether or not it was legal to jailbreak an iPhone, allowing it to operate on a different network or to use unauthorized apps.  Eventually, it was determined that this was allowable.  To quote a court filing, "The Copyright Office cited the fact that the only way for consumers to exercise their fair-use rights by running non-Apple endorsed applications was through circumvention of access controls."  If the court allows the defense to use this, Crippin might be off the hook.  However, he was charging people to mod their Xbox for them, which might mean he's still in trouble-- non-commercial use is generally considered "fair", but making a profit off circumvention might be going too far.

I'm probably going to follow and see how it turns out, and I recommend you do the same if you're interested in either video games or copyright.  This could be a landmark case for console freedom in particular or technological freedom in general.  Giving the growing trend of proprietary technology that comes with limitations built in, this could be remarkably important.  But perhaps I'll detail that trend a bit more at a later time.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Why the US Sucks at Foreign Affairs

I’m sure that the title of this post seems inflammatory at first glance, and I suppose in some ways it is.  However, I spent a lot of time in politics classes as an undergrad, and while this doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, I think one of my professors made a very good case as to why the US is, in fact, not very good at managing foreign affairs.  The notes that prompted this post are actually the same as those that led to my earlier post on isolationism and come courtesy of Professor Allen Lynch and his class Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Everyone's A Little Bit Racist

Alright, before you get all mad at me for the title, you need to do two things.  First, watch this awesome clip from Avenue Q.  Second, you need to hear me out on this one.

My first year at UVa, I took an anthropology class called Racism, Nationalism and Multiculturalism with Professor Richard Handler.  In one of our very first classes, Handler based his lecture off a Los Angeles Times article by Michael Shermer titled, "He's a Racist.  So Are You.  So Am I".  The article deals with comedian Michael Richards' racist outburst during a comedy show, when he was being heckled by the audience.  Following this incident, he appeared on various talk shows to apologize and said, "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this".

Shermer and Professor Handler disagree, instead arguing that, at least unconsciously, everyone is racist.  The reason why is because we are preconditioned and trained to sort things, including people, into categories.  To quote my class notes, "we think of the world in terms of a certain system or set of categories we have been trained to."  To illustrate this, Handler used a non-racially based example; there are only so many movie plots available in American cinema because American movies cannot have an unhappy ending.  In contrast to this, sad endings occur all the time in German cinema.

What this means is not that everyone should start blatantly insulting people of other races.  Rather, it means that trying to be "colorblind", in a way, works contrary to its stated goals.  Trying to be colorblind will not result in equal treatment of all people, because it ignores the system in which people have been socialized.  Rather, the important thing to do is to try to recognize the system and work around it.  To quote Handler again, "Everyone is racist in the sense that we are all taught and know racial and nationalist categories".  Furthermore, he explains that part of knowing who you are in society comes from knowing who you are not.  Saying you are white is also saying you are not black, Asian or Latino.  Like language and other cultural norms, these distinctions are absorbed to the point of becoming unconscious, which leads to outbursts like Richards'.

So how should you start recognizing what's really going on?  First, you need to know that sorting things is normal.  It's how we bring meaning to the world and is hardwired into us.  On the other hand, the categories we sort things into are socially and culturally defined.  In other words, they are arbitrary-- Handler pointed out that someone not socialized in our cultural system, like a Martian, would not naturally divide people along the lines we use to divide ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to recognize what groups exist but also to be aware that they are not natural.  People exist in multiple groups at a time, so while categorizing can help simplify interactions, it should not define them.

In case you are curious as to how racist you are, you can test it here with the Harvard Implicit Association Test.  The test has participants sort good and bad words in conjunction with other dichotomies, such as white/black, fat/thin, or old/young, to determine the inherent preferences we have been socialized with, taking advantage of the fact that people sort words faster when they correspond to preference for that category.  For instance, almost everyone sorts good words to "white" faster than to "black", regardless of their own race.  We also display a strong cultural preference for youth, thinness, and a number of other categories.  Go check it out.  It's an interesting way to start learning a little more about how you work.