July 2010

Internet news aggregator robots never leave me alone. Internet news aggregator robots, never leave me alone.

Every day or more, one of the news aggregator robots gets both my attention and my goat. Here’s one of today’s missiles: “CDC: Most Teens Choose to Abstain,” at cbn.com. The first paragraph:

A recent study shows that most teenagers are virgins, contradicting claims from family planning groups that most young people do not abstain from sex and more sex ed should be taught in schools.

YoungCoupleEmbracing-20070508Image by Kelley Boone, some rights reserved (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

This kind of blabbery drives me nuts. They might has well have said, “A recent study shows that the earth is flat, contradicting claims from Unitarians that the planets revolve around the sun and astronomy should be taught in schools instead of the Bible,” when in fact a recent study showed no such thing, and even if it had, it wouldn’t contradict what the Unitarians supposedly said. Maybe if I’d been on the debate team I’d know how to respond more effectively.

If I were a fundamentalist Christian who wanted to justify abstinence education, I wouldn’t quote or misquote studies, nor would I attempt to use logic. I’d be honest: “According to my church, the world is flat, most young people abstain from sex, and abstinence should be taught in schools right after study hall and before creationism. That’s what I believe, because faith in the church is my guiding light.”

Studies be damned, science be damned, the church is the ultimate authority. I might have more respect if they put it that way more often. (I would still object if it got to the point of the Constitution be damned and laws be damned.) Why should fundamentalists care a whit about the fact that science is consistent, well-founded, and predictive? Why should they care about evidence from studies and measurements, if faith, not intelligence, is their life’s compass? I can disagree, disapprove, and be dismayed, but I have no appeal. We live on different planets; we grew up in different universes.

Anyway, for readers who might appreciate facts and figures, let me explain the CBN’s vulpigeration.

What is “sex,” anyway? For its study, the CDC defined “sex” to be heterosexual vaginal sexual intercourse¹ only (though the boy need not stay on top). Many English speakers would call a bunch of other things people do naked with others sex, but the CDC’s restrictive definition should suit the Christian Broadcasting Network in two ways. First, this definition doesn’t infringe on the way CBN might define another word, “sodomy.” They might prefer it for that bunch of other things people do naked with each other. Second, it yields higher virgin percentages. As far as the CDC and CBN.com are concerned, you’re a virgin if you haven’t been part of any penis-in-vagina hanky-panky, even if you’ve gotten plenty naked and nasty with one or more hims or hers.

Fact: Most young people do not abstain from sex. (Or “sex.”) Not during their entire youth, which is what CBN.com suggested. According to the CDC study, most (65% of) boys aged 18-19 and most (60% of) girls in the same age group have had heterosexual vaginal sexual intercourse. The CDC numbers suggest that most young people do abstain from sex “sex” until about age 17 or 18, but abstaining until you stop abstaining is not the same thing as abstaining. Using the CBN.com logic, you could say that all people abstain from sex, ’cuz they all do — until they stop, and most stop, as we know from all the babies being born and abortions being performed. Few babies (or aborted fetuses) are incarnate nowadays.

¹ Additional information available on the internet.

Lately, there’s been some buzz (no pun intended) in some circles about the recent redesign of Google News, my hometown paper. An initial flurry of articles appeared on June 30 or July 1, when Google launched its first major redesign in years. Another flurry appeared today when Google tweaked the new look, ostensibly in response to a wave (no pun intended) of complaints from users.

Many of the reports have illustrations intending to show the initial changes or recent tweaks (for example Technorati, GoogleWatch, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab). However, none that I’ve seen paints a useful picture of what many users (including me) dislike about the new design, with the new tweaks or not.

Here’s the change from my vantage point. For each capture, I’ve scrolled to just below the “Top News” — to the top of the individual news sections like U.S., Sci/Tech, and so on. These are scaled-down screen captures of nearly the full 1920-pixel width of my screen and most of its 1200-pixel height, omitting some browser falderal.

OldGNewsOld Google News format (still in place at news.google.ca).

New Google News format (single column view).

NewGNews Google News format (two-column view).

In unveiling today’s two-column view, Google tells me I can “now once again view two columns of news headlines.” Instead of deconstructing Google’s announcement, I direct you to the screenshots. At the top is the two-column view Google provided before July 1. At the bottom is the two column view Google is “once again” providing. Can you spot the differences?

On one screen, I used to see about 14 stories from news sections I selected. Then Google decided to give me only six. Now I see eight or ten, which brings me to today’s arithmetic fact:


That’s the first-order approximation. On closer inspection (I apologize for not having linked the full-size images, but you can still see some of this), this is a better approximation: 14 + important details + little junk = 8 + TWO HUGE WHITE RECTANGLES OF EMPTINESS + fewer important details + some junk

Less obvious than the TWO HUGE WHITE RECTANGLES OF EMPTINESS, but not worth ignoring, is the new design’s omission (in both new formats) of the lead story’s author(s). I can’t keep track of reporters now the way I could back when I was learning to read news, but I’d still like to see who the author is (without an extra click) especially given that the alternative seems to be some more WHITE EMPTINESS.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be formulating a question about the EVEN LARGER #F3F6ED RECTANGLES OF EMPTINESS that surround the content here on my very own soapbox. Good question. If I had Google’s resources, not only would this blog be far more popular and interesting, you’d get it in a stunning, device-appropriate format. (At least for a few years, you might, until I went to the other side.) You’re getting what you get, #F3F6ED EMPTINESS included, because it’s easy for me to do and it seems like a reasonable compromise that accommodates a variety of screens and devices, none too badly. If I had Google’s resources, I might also be able to employ someone who could write better answers to hard questions, but I’m not entirely sure, given the AQ (answer quotient) from Apple and Google lately.

If you have something to tell me about my blog’s design, by all means do, and I’ll listen. I can’t promise changes, but I can and do promise that if I change things, I won’t tell you I’m giving my reader(s) what they wanted unless that’s truly the case.

Finally, if I seem more consistently cranky than usual lately, or if I mention Canada a lot more often than before, well, now you know why.

Not that it matters exactly why the woman in front of me at the express self-checkout line earlier this evening huffed for sixty seconds as the man in front of her dug repeatedly into his pockets for penny after penny so that he could deposit exact change into the coin slot for his purchases, but she did neglect to spend any part of those sixty seconds retrieving her Stop & Shop Card from her purse, beginning the thirty-second task only after the punctilious fellow left, and this oppugned my naïve assumption that impending delay was the primary object of her disapprobation. Also, I discreetly snickered when, a moment later, the conveyor belt abruptly reversed direction, and the self-checkout machine’s computerized voice instructed the woman to rescan all of her items.


Image: Greg MaPublished research studies usually drive me nuts, but this one less than most. Social Psychological and Personality Science just published “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: Regulation of Gender-Expressive Choices by Men,” by David Gal and James Wilkie, and it’s fabulous awesome.

According to the abstract,

Our findings suggest that men experience a conflict between their relatively intrinsic preferences and gender norms and that they tend to forgo their intrinsic preferences to conform to a masculine gender identity (when they have sufficient resources to incorporate gender norm information in their choices). Women, on the other hand, appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices.

The authors found that men, when asked to choose between two foods, one with a straight macho masculine description corresponding to American societal “norms” for guy food and the other that was gay sissy feminine more what Americans might think of as girly food, they picked the guy item almost two-thirds of the time. If, that is, they had plenty of time to ponder their choice. If they were rushed to decide, though, they picked girl food choices more often — about 55% of the time, on average. Women, on the other hand, choose girl food about two-thirds of the time, regardless of whether they’re rushed to decide.

The authors conclude (in more precise language than my paraphrase) that men, unlike women, are cognitively self-regulating their decisions according to societal norms of gender expression. In other words, while men like girly food as much as girls, they’ll decide not to order it (forgoing food they like in order to look like “real men”) if they have time to think things through.

It doesn’t surprise me that men put energy into “behaving like men,” even when it sometimes conflicts with their intrinsic desire. (I’m not so convinced that men are as unlike women as the authors say.¹)

The authors describe the effect they saw as “making gender-congruent choices,” but I might envision it another way: men put a lot of energy into avoiding anything they think will make them look gay. How different is what the authors call “threats associated with gender-norm transgression” from fear of being labeled a fag?

In any case, special thanks to the authors for their menu of “feminine” and “masculine” menu items, which was half the fun of the paper. Here are a few selections. I want all of them, but hold the shredded American cheese.

  • Martha’s Vineyard Salad Mixed baby greens and fresh spinach with toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries, cucumber, red onion, and a warm Vermont goat cheese crouton with a balsamic vinaigrette
  • Chunky Fudge Cake Ice Cream Vanilla ice cream, smothered in hot fudge with chunks of chocolate fudge cake, whipped cream, and peanuts
  • Vitello Carciofi and Asparagus Beef medallions sautéed with asparagus and artichoke in a light demi-glace sauce
  • Damon’s Specialty Pizza Ground hamburger, red onions, roasted peppers, and mozzarella cheese
  • Western Salad Chunks of barbequed chicken with shredded American cheese served on greens with a side of Ranch dressing

¹ The authors’ findings suggest that men do this, but women don’t (or do to a much smaller extent). But the authors only studied university undergraduates at (I assume from their affiliation) a largish private Midwestern university. For that population, it’s fairly reasonable to generalize, and perhaps for that population this in fact is a guy-only thing. I’d speculate, but with no support from the study, that the effect is present among men across most segments of the U.S. population. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find the “I better order something gender-appropriate” effect in women, too, in some places (richer white populations in the South?). Studies in populations other than undergraduates would be nice to see.

The danger in generalizing from undergraduates, who are readily available to university researchers, to the general population, has fortunately been getting some press lately. It’s a real danger.

There are plenty of other interesting angles to explore. To what extent this effect is expressed ought to depend on the environment. Do men (with time to think) pick guy foods more frequently when they’re dining with several guys as opposed to when dining with a single woman? (I’d put money on yes.) Are there differences between straight men and gay men? (I’m not sure I’d bet on this one.)

Kiss me goodnight, Sergeant-Major
Tuck me in my little wooden bed
Snog me now Sergeant-Major
We all love you, Sergeant-Major
Even when your neck grows rather red.

Bathroom Images from the public domain.

You’ll find a link to the leaked survey here.

While my part of the world was embroiled in a heat wave last week, brutal midwinter cold was gripping Vostok Station high atop the mountains and ice of central Antarctica. At times, it was more than two hundred degrees colder in Vostok than it was here in the U.S. Northeast.

Vostok A few days earlier, by coincidence, I’d installed the last of my three SodaStream carbonators and ordered two refills. On the 7th, in the middle of the heat wave, the local distributor exchanged my empties, leaving me with four pounds of freshly compressed carbon dioxide and two questions.

  1. Is four pounds of CO2 a lot compared to the amount already inside my condo, not counting the basement?
  2. When the temperature drops below -109.3 °F, the sublimation point of carbon dioxide, does it snow dry ice?

I’m happy to share with you the answers.

1. Yes, quite a lot. The volume of my condo, not counting the basement, is about 7,000 cubic feet, or about 200,000 liters, and while I have far too much junk, my place is still mostly full of air. And like air most places, the air in my condo is mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, and about 400 parts per million of it (by volume) is carbon dioxide. My condo contains a fifth of a million liters of air, I figured, so I’ve got a fifth of 400 liters of CO2, or about 80 liters.

At room temperature, CO2 is effectively an ideal gas, so I don’t need Google to convert 80 liters to moles, which is going to help with the calculation. A mole of an ideal gas at standard temperature and pressure¹ occupies 22.4 liters, so I’m living with about 4 moles of CO2. (And maybe a few voles, too, but that’s not relevant here.) A mole of any chemical compound means 600 sextillion molecules of the stuff. Fortunately, we don’t have to do any sextillionary arithmetic. What makes a mole a mole is that it’s the number of Daltons (neutron or proton+electron masses, more or less) in a gram, so the mass of a mole of a chemical compound is simply its molecular weight in grams. The molecular weight of CO2 is² 12+2×16, or 44, so a mole of CO2 has a mass of about 44 grams or an ounce and a half.

Four moles of CO2 in my condo — that’s about six ounces, or less than a tenth of what’s squeezed into my two new Sodastream carbonators.

2. No. The temperature -109.3 °F is the sublimation point of CO2 at one atmosphere. That’s the temperature at which dry ice in your house or cooler chest (which is pure CO2 solid under an atmosphere of air pressure) sublimates; it’s not the temperature at which CO2 in plain air would precipitate into “snow.” Carbon dioxide won’t precipitate out of the air unless it’s cooled to the sublimation point for its partial pressure in air. That’s (see above) about 400 millionths of an atmosphere at sea level, and roughly two-thirds of that at Vostok Station, elevation 11,000 feet. Smart guy David R. Cook at Argonne National Laboratory has generously used some tax dollars to spread the word. He proposes that the temperature would have to be much colder than –110 — in fact about 220 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale (and no, that’s not “twice as cold” as -110) for CO2 to precipitate at Vostok Station.

Typical partial pressures of CO2 on earth are unfortunately off the scale of the phase diagrams I could find, so I can’t provide more details or confirm what David says. You can, however, see the trend in the phase diagram below. The boundary between the periwinkle and salmon regions is where CO2 sublimates or “snows.” The lower the pressure, the lower the temperature.

800px-Phase_changes_of_CO2 Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The phase diagram also answers a question I didn’t think to ask.

  • Are full SodaStream carbonators filled with liquid or gas? Liquid.

They’re about a liter big, which (using the calculations above) translates to an internal pressure of several hundred atmospheres, which is well within the green region. How cool is that? Liquid CO2 right here in my house.

Call it chemistry or call it physics, this is all great fun.

Related links: How Much CO2 is in a Bottle of Soda?, The Influence of CO2 on the Chemistry of Soda, Soda’s Contribution to Global Warming

¹ Standard temperature and pressure is 20 °C and one (sea level) atmosphere of pressure. That’s close enough to the conditions in my condo. Around room temperature, gas expands at a rate of about 1% per 4 °C rise in temperature. It also expands as you climb above sea level, by about 1% for each 300 feet. The second derivatives are small, and the contributions from the partial derivative of volume with respect to temperature and altitude add, so yadda yadda yadda, we’re within a few percent. It was worth a quick thinking through, though.

² There are a some simplifications here, but again, they don’t affect the overall calculation by more than a percent or two. The value 44 assumes that every molecule of CO2 is made up of the predominant isotopes of carbon and oxygen, carbon 12 and oxygen 16, and that single atoms of these isotopes weigh exactly 12 and 16 Daltons, respectively. The “official” atomic weights as periodically reviewed by IUPAC would be more accurate, and they give a molecular weight of 44.01. The discrepancy reflects the distribution of isotopes on earth as well as other details that probably involve higher physics and chemistry well beyond my understanding. In addition, it would seem to me that this measurement ought to be called the molecular mass, but when measuring any property of such tiny things, you’re going to run up against quantum mechanics and other complications, so I suppose whoever understands all of this can call it what they want.

In a segment of Pro Se, today’s installment of This American Life, radio host Ira Glass spoke with Francisco Calderon, a New York district attorney, about a case he lost¹ to a defendant who represented himself in court. I’m not a regular listener, and based on today’s episode, I won’t become one. The show’s web site describes the segment, Disorder in the Court, this way:

Earlier this year, admitted drug user Jorge Cruz decided to act as his own lawyer in an Albany, New York criminal court. Impossibly, he won. Ira talks to Francisco Calderon, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, about what it feels like to lose to an amateur.

Perhaps I have too much faith in the American legal system. I believe that judges and juries base their decisions on the evidence and on the law. Absent information to the contrary, I assume the jury didn’t find the prosecution’s evidence sufficient to convict Cruz. Glass didn’t mention this possibility, but the facts and rhetoric in Glass’s interview with Calderon suggest it.

The rhetoric (which offended me) matched the website’s subjective description of the segment. “… admitted drug user … Impossibly, he won.” Because Cruz was an admitted drug user, Glass seems to imply, he must have been guilty.

Glass never touched on the question of whether Cruz was guilty, nor on the legal standard of reasonable doubt. Calderon said he never “connected” with the jury, who he thought sympathized with the picture of Cruz as a poor drug addict who couldn’t have afforded the $5,000 worth of drugs he was accused of possessing. The felony-weight cocaine was seized from under a mattress in a hotel room registered to Cruz’s brother. Cruz admitted to using drugs in the room, but he claimed not to know there was a stash in the bed. Cruz’s brother and a third person in the room pleaded guilty to felony drug charges and were sentenced without a trial.

Calderon worried that the more he objected to Cruz in the courtroom (and no doubt he had valid objections to Cruz, who had no legal training to know what sort of questioning was allowed), the more he’d come across as a bully. Glass analogized that juries expected something like a boxing match between well-matched fighters.

A trial isn’t a fistfight between lawyers where the jury decides who landed the best uppercut. Sure, a lawyer who can’t “land a punch” might prevent the jury from understanding the facts, but (television notwithstanding) the defendant is the one on trial, not the lawyers.

If life were as simple as “he’s a drug user, he must be guilty,” we wouldn’t need much of a legal system, nor would we have the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Jorge Cruz availed himself of his constitutional right, and he chose to represent himself. He was acquitted by the jury on the most serious charge, but I’m not convinced his choice to serve as his own attorney was an important factor in the outcome.

Disorder in the Court fits the American narrative that champions the underdog and devalues experience, education, process, and authority. (The irony² isn’t lost on me that this same narrative helps boost the blogger ego.) Yet at the same time, it whispers a contrasting message that authority is always right, and that when it fails, something else is to blame. Taken only a bit further, these are the narratives that give rise to and sustain Joe the Plumber, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin – narratives that are as resolutely American “as apple pie,” but that verge on the truly distasteful and dangerous.

Other segments of Pro Se were also disappointing. In Swak Down, a former student teacher tells how he addressed a violent incident by deciding to “forgo all the rules, and administer frontier justice on the fly,” believing (still) that no other approach would have worked. In Underling Gets an Underling, a former production assistant tells the story of how she handled her frustration about how she was being treated: she placed a phony Craigslist ad for her own production assistant, hired an unwitting fellow, and then treated him as unfairly and dishonestly as she felt her boss was treating her.

This American Life may or may not be representative of American life, but it left a bad taste in my mouth today. It needs a big dash of opprobrium at least.

¹ A contemporary account of the case in the Albany Times Union notes that while Cruz was acquitted of felony cocaine possession, the jury did find him guilty of misdemeanor heroin possession, and he was sentenced to time already served in the Albany County jail.

² I know, I know.

Millions of Americans were up in arms over the holiday weekend after McDonald’s¹, the fast-food giant, began to use “oyster” packaging, the vacuum-formed, heat-sealed, hard plastic clear containers more commonly associated with batteries and computer peripherals than with restaurant food, for drive-up and take-out orders at all its restaurants in the United States and its territories on Friday.

Clamshell AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by bunchofpants

Hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints have appeared on Twitter and from loyal customers who prefer the old paper wrappers.

  • what are u thinking with this crap mcdonald #burgerfail #wendys

On Facebook, dozens of groups have been created in opposition to the change, such as “Admit you’re wrong, McDonalds” and “A Million People in Support of Burgers in Paper,” where users can lodge longer complaints, like this one:

  • “I’ve eaten two Big Macs and a large fries every day since you switched from styrofoam 20 years ago, but McD doesn’t care about its customers any more. I went to Burger King today, and you know what? It tastes better, too. Good riddance, McDonalds.”

Scores of complaints were also lodged on the official McDonald’s website.

According to its June 30 press release, the change addresses two of McDonald’s’s customers’ most pressing concerns. “For years, customers have wanted to be able to check their order without unwrapping everything. The new packages are transparent. Also, customers want their food to be safe from insects and germs, and according to our research, welded packaging provides that impression better than any other option.”

When asked about the public outrage, a spokesman for McDonald’s had this to say: “While it can take time to adjust to change, we’ve tested our latest packaging design thoroughly. We’ll keep monitoring customer feedback so we can continue improving our product.”

McDonald’s aficionados in Detroit, Buffalo, and a few other locations quickly found out they had another option. Canadian locations won’t adopt the new packaging for a few months.

What do you think?

¹ This article is not really about McDonald’s, and McDonald’s did not switch to clamshell packaging. This article is about Google News, and they did switch to something that makes about as much sense as clamshell packaging for takeout food.

The Wayback Machine at archive.org has archived much of the web since 1996. Today I found a couple of posts that had fallen out of the van in 2007 when I moved from Yahoo! Small Business to Bluehost. They’re now back where they belong. Thanks, Wayback Machine!

Kudos to Brian Klug and Anand Lal Shimpi for measuring and graphing the (very nonlinear) relationship [article;graph] between iPhone 4 bars and signal strength, which helps explain what’s going on with the iPhone death grip.

Also, here’s a suggestion to AT&T, who might want to replace the slogan “More Bars in More Places.”

AT&T  iPhone image © Patrick Hoesly (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)