Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Celebrate Diversity? Bah!

eccentric chuck

From "SUNBREAK CITY: I don't..."
...understand the word diversity as it is used in the school system, higher ed. and legal circles. The goal of learning institutions is to make us the same not more diverse: delay gratification, study, take care of yourself, pursue attainable goals that lie yet in the future; in short, to make us middle class. The middle class is recognizable all over the world: get to bed at a reasonable hour, be on time for work or school, do your best, save, study, plan for the future, excercise some discipline in your life, try to make wise choices.

A quibble: I think he is just a bit off base on education. The goal is not to make us all the same; the goal is to make us all sensible, reasonable, well-educated and successful. Making us all more nearly the same is a by-product, not the goal.

Tolstoy wrote that "All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Similarly we can observe that there are only a few ways to be sensible but there are countless millions of ways to be a damn fool. Thus the tendency of good education to produce a degree of homogeneity in its students.

It is neither possible nor desirable for that homogeneity to be perfect. If everyone came out of school exactly the same then their experiences in life would be the result of random chance from which no conclusions could be drawn. No one could ever learn anything and no one could ever teach anything. Societal progress would stop.

On the other hand, in a society without a large degree of similarity between its members one also can't draw any conclusions from life experiences. There are too many variables in play. Again, no one could ever learn anything and no one could ever teach anything.

[Jeez, I'm being long-winded today. Zzzzzzzz. Sorry, I'll try to find my way to the end quickly...]

In theory, at least, the notion that diversity should be "celebrated" arose as a reaction to perceptions of intolerance. The problem is that the opposite of intolerance is tolerance, not celebration. There is another word I like much, much better than diversity to capture the need for a degree of experimentation in the way we lead our lives. This other word does not have the open-ended rejection of norms and standards that makes diversity so toxic. In fact it depends on them.

Celebrate eccentricity!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

That Placebo Stuff Sounds Good; Where Can I Get Some of That?

placeboIf you read the literture of medical research you will find that the very best studies of the effects of drugs and nutritional supplements will always involve comparing the item being tested against the same standard: a "Placebo". Whether the study is to see if the newest, multi-million dollar anti-cancer drug is effective against cancer of the pancreas, or to see if ginger capsules are helpful with motion sickness the treatment given to the control group will be a placebo. If that anti-cancer drug can be shown to be vastly better than the placebo the drug company will be jubilant -- because, in many cases that "placebo" is pretty dang good.

In a nutshell, the Placebo Effect is the tendency of patients and test subjects to have real positive effects when given treatements that they believe might be helpful, even if the treatment given has no direct physical action at all. Study after study after study has shown that pain, for instance, can be aleviated to a large degree by the administration of a placebo. One third of study subjects with moderate pain can be expected to report significantly better pain relief from a placebo when compared to a control group that receives no treatment at all. There is some debate about whether the placebo effect is entirely subjective, or whether it can be demonstrated to show measurable, objective physical improvements. There is decent science on both sides of that debate and I do not particularly have an opinion one way or the other.

What I do know is that the placebo effect can easily be your friend. If you have some sort of a condition which is either not bad enough to justify the possible side effects of a more-effective treatment, or a condition for which no "approved" effective treatment exists, then that 30 percent chance that a placebo will be helpful starts to sound pretty good. All you need to do is find something that is cheap, harmless, and has some anecdotal evidence that it might be helpful for what ails you and there you go. Vitamin C during sniffle and drip season? Peruvian Maca for low (libido*COUGH*) energy? Vick's Vapo-Rub for toenail fungus? Why the hell not?

Of course you have to be careful what you read. Take the case of Saw Palmetto for enlarged prostates. There were years and years of decent, well-designed if rather small studies that suggested that Saw Palmetto extract was helpful with the symptoms of Benign Prostate Hypertrophy. Millions of men about my age took the stuff and many found it helpful. Then along came a group of party poopers who did really big study and found that Saw Palmetto is was no better than placebo. *sigh* In their study something like 30 percent of the participants found Saw Palmetto helpful and another 30 percent liked the placebo. That makes them all 30 percent better off than we all are now. The middle-aged men of the world are now 30 percent less likely to sleep through the night without getting up to pee because a group of meddlesome urologists had nothing better to do than to let the air out of our favorite placebo.

I am not suggesting that we should put a stop to science. (I'm not sure I am suggesting anything and tend to doubt that I am.) But I do tend to question the dog-in-a-manger glee with which some members of the mainstream medical community greet purely negative news about "alternative" therapies. I swill down pills by the handfull every day, trying to delay the enevitabilities of life, and I rather resent the assumption that I do so because I have been hornswoggled by the yayhoos in the nutritional supplements industry. I am fully aware, statistically speaking, that half of what I take consists of harmless-but-useless placebos that will eventually be replaced by something else that new research suggests is better. My "snake oil" isn't free but I try to stay informed and to balance the trade off between science and cost. There are a number of things I might be taking if the science behind them were stronger -- or if they were cheaper. There are other things (Maca*COUGH*) for which the science is, shall we say, dodgy but the product is safe and cheap and the placebo value is large. If someone does a study that shows that something I take is bad for me I am interested. If something else is shown to be better, again I am interested. But if something is shown to be no better than placebo I might just be happier not knowing about it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

On comments at The Belmont Club

Wrechard, the proprietor of The Belmont Club is making changes to his blog. One of the changes he proposes is to only allow comments after a moderator (that would be he) has approved them. He has lots of smart readers who post insightful comments and, sadly, a few who have nothing interesting to say and nothing better to do than to share their nothing-to-say with the world. Reading the comment section of some of Wrechard's postings is a bit like trying to have a church service in the chimpanzee enclosure at the zoo. Lately the chimp to deacon ratio seems to have been climbing and Wrechard has decided to review comments in hopes that some of the chimps will get bored and wander off.

In the comment section for his announcement I offer this advice which I copy here so my loyal readers can let me know where I fall on the chimp-to-deacon scale.

First, it is your blog; do whatever you want with it. Don't feel that you need to do anything for us. Your blog is too good already: we are not worthy.

That said, what I would do if it were my blog would be to put a link to the comments policy in the template and, in that policy, I would state that comments are not only moderated but that only a small number will be approved. Commenters would be advised to regard the comments they enter as personal (but not private) notes to the moderator which may rarely be shared with other readers in the comments section if they are especially insightful. Commenters would be encouraged to post a copy of any long comments in their own blogs, linking to the Belmont Club item, and to look for their comments, and those of other commenters, in the "Links to This Post" section of the Belmont Club posting.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Kodak DX6490

At a party last night I was asked about my camera. The couple I was talking to have a large, heavy digital -- the kind that take great pictures on those few occasions when you are willing to lug ten pounds of camera to the photo-op. They are thinking about a somewhat lighter camera and my Kodak DX6490 caught their attention.

I really like the camera. It isn't the smallest camera in the world or the lightest. There are other cameras that have more features, are more convenient or easier to use. But the DX6490 has been a very good compromise for me. It's a couple of years old and I bought it used on eBay. The newer version of the camera has more megapixels and a few other features I like but is quite similar in most respects.

While we were talking about the camera we took a few sample pictures. While demonstrating the use of the LCD screen as a viewfinder I took this photo of my lovely wife. Click on the photos for other sizes including original

100_4634Flash photos taken outside in the dark almost always suck. This one is no exception. The meter seems to have been a bit worried about that white shirt and the photo is a bit darker than perfect.

100_4635I handed the camera to the lady I was talking to and she took this one. The camera did a nice job of finding the slightly-off-center subject whose blue shirt was less confusing to the metering system.

Below are a couple of photos I took at the NC Zoo on Memorial Day. The photo of the bear in particular shows off the decent 10x optical zoom lens which is one of the best features of the camera. If you are interested click on this link [large file] to the original size version of the bear. Look at the bear's fur and the texture of its nose. Also notice the typical Kodak colors in all the photos -- a tad warm and saturated.



And finally, a photo of our host and hostess at the western-themed party. I have adjusted the exposure, contrast and saturation on this one on my computer. I was standing a bit too far away for the flash and the original was dark. All the other photos are exactly as they came from the camera.