23 Apr 2005

On vinyl

I knew going into tonight's talk by Dr Sandra Steingraber that vinyl was bad. I've been working on decreasing its presence in my life---the last time I needed to replace a shower curtain, for instance, I made one from broadcloth rather than buy a vinyl one. But, as with so many environmental issues, the reality is so much worse than I realised. "Vinyl", see, is short for "polyvinyl chloride", aka PVC. It's that "chloride" part that causes most of the problems.

Vinyl starts its life as salt. When the salt is treated to extract the sodium, it releases chlorine gas as a byproduct. Chlorine gas, you may recall, is the chemical weapon banned after WWI by universal accord as people realised how horrifying it was: it essentially liquefies your respiratory system and drowns you in your own blood plasma. So we're not exactly off to a good start here.

The chlorine is captured and processed, and the next stage in its life is as vinyl chloride (monomer), which doesn't kill rapidly like chlorine gas but is well-known as one of the most powerful carcinogens in existence. Charming! As if that weren't enough, it is also highly explosive. Let's hope no tanker trucks carrying vinyl chloride ever get in an accident or get attacked, because they'd take out everything with a huge blast radius on the order of several square miles.

Further treatment converts the monomer into its polymer cousin polyvinyl chloride: vinyl. The process unavoidably exposes the factory workers, and usually the nearest town, to considerable doses of carcinogenic vinyl chloride, but the fun doesn't stop there. If it is to be turned into something flexible, like a shower curtain or a rubber ducky, it has to be further treated. PVC is actually fairly brittle, so plasticisers are added at this stage. These chemicals "offgas" in measurable quantities for several months---this is the source of "new car smell" among other things---and current research is ongoing to determine for certain whether they are carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous, but signs are not good.

And even if the vinyl is going into something that doesn't need to be flexible---like vinyl flooring, which is what all "linoleum" currently sold in the US actually is---there is the problem that it breaks down over time, and eventually releases carcinogenic vinyl chloride. Many vinyl products have still other nasty things in them, as with miniblinds, which usually have significant heavy metal content in order to delay the PVC breaking down in sunlight.

But wait! There's more! What do you do with something that breaks or is no longer useful? You throw it out or recycle it. Recycling doesn't work with PVC, because all the toxic chemicals used to make it can't get into the regular plastics recycling stream. So you throw it out... in a landfill? That's the usual choice, at which point the plasticisers, the heavy metals, and the vinyl chloride itself leach out into the ground, and thence to the groundwater, and on into our drinking water. Or you could incinerate it... and release all that chemical goodness into the atmosphere, where it gets deposited a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand miles away, messing with the global food and water supplies.

Dr Steingraber's talk was really interesting and helped to give a human face to the problem of vinyl, as well as some other environmental issues she's investigated in the past. I'm looking forward to reading her book Living Downstream. In the meantime, I'll settle for exhorting all y'all to try to reduce your dependence on vinyl---especially, for God's sake don't use it in anything big like flooring or siding.

"Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war." --Donald Rumsfeld

Posted by blahedo at 11:52pm | Comments (2)

20 Apr 2005

It's official

My sister is now an old woman. That is all.

"What is 'correct' usage? We have no king to establish the King's English; we only have the President's English, which we don't want." --Zinsser

Posted by blahedo at 9:51pm | Comments (5)

19 Apr 2005

Flunk Day commentary

In a comment to my Flunk Day post, Brian left a link to his own account of the day.

It certainly is a counterpoint. I had the advantage of being able to return to my apartment, not be awakened by the Friars, and so on. (I actually wouldn't have been awakened by the Friars, already being awake, but that's not really relevant here.) But in the interest of fixing Flunk Day, rather than just writing it off, I'd like to work out some way to get rid of the problems he notes while keeping all the positives. Although Brian calls it "a tradition that has lost its purpose", I saw lots of clear indications that the original purpose---bringing the campus together, getting a day off, having lots of fun---is far from completely lost. Indeed, it appears to be on the rise; I saw clear improvements over last year in terms of less drunken people, and I've heard many reports from faculty and former students that this is part of a consistent long-range trend.

The real problems in Brian's case were all caused by people in the dorms, mainly two things: noise and vandalism. I'd be interested to know how widespread this sort of vandalism is, since the main areas of campus were notable chiefly for their cleanliness afterwards. An event where hundreds of people are partying is usually followed by a swath of detritus, but aside from the occasional stray piece of food there really didn't seem like that much to clean up. (Exception: there was a considerable amount of mud on a few of the walls in the mail room.) So I wouldn't have expected such destruction in the living areas; that's the problem to solve, and I'm not sure how. Do they do this when they host a regular party?

And as for the noise, two of the things mentioned weren't even directly related to Flunk Day. The door-slamming, while annoying, simply had the misfortune of being the night before. The first round of whistling and yelling wasn't actually people trying to start FD early---they thought it wasn't FD and were trying to perpetrate a scare. Of course, if there had never been FD there wouldn't be FD scares, but I really think that dealing with the scares directly would be a much more effective and fast solution to the problem of FD scares than eliminating Flunk Day entirely. The actual Flunk Day noise, well, to some extent that's just part of having a big party, and I've heard several stories from people who took advantage of the day off to go someplace quiet---one of the city parks, maybe---and read a book or take a nap in the sun. I think this is a reasonable compromise, actually.

I think Flunk Day is a really fun experience for most students, and they've been doing a good job at making it "good, clean fun" for the students who once were scared away from it. Now we just need to make sure that the students who want to opt out have the ability to do so.

"If quidquid Latine [dicitur], altum videtur 'whatever is said in Latin seems profound', then surely perhaps Gręce altius 'deeper in Greek'." --Angelo Mercado

Posted by blahedo at 4:52pm | Comments (4)

18 Apr 2005

Flunk Day II: Flunk Day Bites Back

My 142 exam was scheduled to go out today and be due Thursday. That seemed a little short, and so I'd thought of switching it to a Friday due date; but I wasn't sure, because this is totally Flunk Day season, and if Flunk Day were Thursday or Friday that would push my Friday due date to Monday, and midterm grades are due that day. So I put off changing it, and worked late into the night to put together the exam, graded homeworks, and so on, and when I finally went to sleep for a few hours I still hadn't prepped today's lectures. This is not unusual, actually, and it's the reason why I tend to spend 3rd and 4th hour sequestered in my office, feverishly writing out notes for lecture.

So I got up, took my shower, and was walking my dog---running late as usual, but hoping to get to my 9:20 Music Theory class close to on time---when Judy leans out her back door and says: "Ok, I have to ask, is today Flunk Day?" And I thought: "!" Because in all my figurings on how this is Flunk Day season, it never occurred to me that today might be the day. And despite not going to bed until after 6, I hadn't checked my email, and so I just didn't know. I rushed inside to find the dean's email: "YES-IT'S FLUNK DAY"

Well, that sure took a load off. At a somewhat more leisurely pace, I packed up a bag of dog stuff (including water bottle and bowl as well as plastic bags and toys), grabbed my dorky Bermuda hat, and loaded Nutmeg into the car to go to his, and my, second Flunk Day.

In all honesty, I simply cannot imagine a more perfect Flunk Day. The weather was the warmest it's been since September, the day clear with just a hint of clouds to accentuate the blue sky. As I arrived, about 9:30, the mud and foam pits were wrapping up, although I got gotten by one of my former students with a supersoaker first thing. Nutmeg was a hit (of course), and we wandered around the campus for about an hour and a half, chatting with people and watching the fun. Walking a dog, by the way, is a great excuse to be just wandering around aimlessly.

I ate lunch a little after 11 and then wandered some more (gotten again, this time by Erin, a ballroomer, who debarked from the slip-and-slide and gave me a great big hug), eventually landing in a circle of math and CS faculty for about a half an hour. At this point, Nutmeg was starting to get a little antsy, so I took him home. Lacking anything resembling a full night's sleep, I decided to take a nap for an hour and a half. This got me up at 3pm, and I thought about going back to sleep, but then I figured, hey, Flunk Day's just once a year, right? So I headed back in for another round.

I arrived at 3:30, just in time to catch the last of the Sno-Cones, and then head over to the Faculty-Friars softball game at 4, to kick the students' asses again this year. It was at this point that I received the first notice that I made the front page of the Register Mail---apparently I'm the photogenic face (or at least the photogenic crouched profile) of the Knox County Peace and Justice Coalition, which dedicated their Peace Tree yesterday.

We did, in fact, kick the asses of the students (well, by "we" I mean "other members of the faculty team", although I at least managed to achieve my goal of not embarrassing myself). Afterwards, I grabbed dinner on the Gizmo patio with Nathan, who was feeling a bit guilty about not granting a Flunk Day extension for a paper due tomorrow---it had already been extended once, but then, it's Flunk Day. I think the thing that tipped the balance was when I pointed out that if he didn't extend it, he'd just get a lot of crappy papers tomorrow. So he went off to send that email, and I returned to my car to trade my hat for a long-sleeved shirt and a blanket to sit on, for the concert.

I think I skipped the concert last year, but this year's was an a cappella group from Minneapolis named Marcoux Corner. The concert was great, hitting a variety of genres and (in true a cappella style) a bunch of songs that you wouldn't have expected to work without accompaniment. After being spoiled by the rich a cappella tradition at Brown, with groups of a dozen or so that rotate as various members graduate, it was fun to see a group of just four guys give such an awesome show. A highlight of the show was when they launched into a song and after just three words, a whole section of students started laughing and cheering. The opening verse didn't seem to warrant such attention, but the payoff was when they hit the refrain: they... well, why don't you just listen? (SO not work-safe. Seriously, don't click that link if there's anyone judgemental around.) If you can't listen to that where you are, I suppose the lyrics will do. (More, though not entirely, work-safe. Caveat lector.) Possibly the funniest part about the whole affair was when Terry Jackson, a Knox administrator who was sitting next to me, kept going on about it, and trying to remember where she'd heard it before---it's a Da Vinci's Notebook song, as she eventually managed to remember.

A few of us hung around and talked to the bass from the group for a while, but eventually they had to pack up, and it was dark and time for the movie to start anyway. The movie, Spider-Man II, was to be projected on an enormous (heh) inflatable (heh) screen, probably forty feet tall, erected (...) in front of Old Main. A much more efficient way to have a temporary outdoor movie screen than the heavy scaffolding I've seen some other places, although you do have to contend with the occasional wrinkle in the projection surface. The movie was great---I'm at least sympathetic to the idea that it was better than the original, though I haven't decided for sure myself. Nathan (who I ended up sitting next to again for the movie) claimed it was, and that it would be even better if the first 75 minutes of angst had been cut to about 45 minutes of angst, which is probably about right. On the other hand, they were certainly getting a lot of mileage out of dumping on Peter Parker every which way they could.

After the movie, the crowds dispersed fairly quickly, leaving surprisingly little mess behind them. I folded Nathan into the passenger seat of my Mini and gave him a ride home, and then arrived back here at about 10:30.

It almost feels like it should be an intercalary day. That tomorrow will be the real Monday, the real 18th of April. (As an aside, wouldn't it be nice if you could engineer that every once in a while?) I shouldn't have to put my garbage out tonight, because I didn't do any of the other usual Monday things. I should be prepping for my Monday classes, not my Tuesday free day.

The experience was fantastic. The vast majority of the college was there for at least one event, and probably most of the college---students, staff, and faculty---went to several. Hundreds of us went to the concert. Hundreds went through the inflatable obstacle course and slip-and-slide. Forty or so people played in the softball game, but at least a hundred people were watching. It's these shared experiences that help the College to bond as a community, and it's these memories that we will reminisce about a decade from now. Flunk Day is a fabulous event that it's too bad more colleges don't have.

"Whatever visceral appeal the "Life Begins When Sperm and Egg Walk Into a Bar" position may hold, it remains factually inaccurate; only a fringe of the medical community accepts the notion that emergency contraception is an abortifacient." --Dahlia Lithwick

Posted by blahedo at 11:38pm | Comments (1)

16 Apr 2005

More singing

A long time ago, I saw an Enya interview in which she was asked to describe her music in one word, and she picked "melancholy". I was shocked. I mean, so much of her music---in fact, most of my favourites, at least at the time---was upbeat in that ethereal sort of way that she does. But as I thought about it more, I realised that if you really look at the entirety of her oeuvre, there really is an overarching melancholy to it; much as looking at the history of the Irish people shows you a long line of sad, oppressed, dirt-farming poverty that is nevertheless punctuated with a lot of happiness. Found happiness, to be sure; the Irish find happiness because they know where and how to look for it.

It was in this vein of looking at the big picture of the work that I classified the music of Rachel Ries and Andru Bemis last night. I've talked about them before; they were at Knox last night, in Wallace Lounge, and they lived up to my previous raves.

During the course of the performance, I got to thinking about how similar, and yet different, they were. They're both going to fit more or less in the category of folk, or maybe singer-songwriter. And you could even maybe put them both in the general category of sad songs (with a lot of exceptions, to be sure). But Andru's sad songs are a gritty, railroad-and-rust-belt sort of sad. In my brain they situate themselves firmly in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and they have more of the feel of songs of a people. Even when he's singing his own stuff, it sounds like a rendition of something that surely must have been written decades ago and put into a "songs of the hobo" singalong book somewhere.

Rachel's sad songs, on the other hand, are a more broad-expanses-of-the-upper-Midwest sort of sad. And they tend to be more personal, intimate; even when she's singing someone else's song, you get the feeling that she's singing about something that happened to her last week. But it's an upbeat sort of sadness, if that's possible, sadness with a wry grin. I think part of the reason I like her singing so much is that, as with some of my other favourite groups, catchy music is frequently paired with much more serious lyrics.

It was seriously hard not to request my favourite songs that I knew from their CDs, but of course those I could hear when I went home. And I was rewarded: there were quite a few new-to-me songs, including one that hit like a punch to the stomach about some really sad things that happened in Rachel's town growing up. I get to look forward to that one on her next CD, which might be a while as the current one is only just coming out in a couple weeks.

Which, by the way, will be excellent. I've heard most of the songs on it, and it'll totally be worth your money. It looks like it's not officially orderable yet, but once it is you should go to her site and order it. Also go see her perform---looks like she's got a few shows in Chicago in the next few weeks.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." --John Kenneth Galbraith

Posted by blahedo at 10:30pm | Comments (0)

14 Apr 2005

It's *everywhere*

I gave Nutmeg a bath last night, and this seems to have triggered his spring shed. Just looking at him causes him to emit a cloud of discarded fur, and the results of him shaking are simply not to be believed.

Brush, brush, brush. Sigh.

"If you walk/swim far enough, everything is west of St. Louis. Including, amazingly enough, St. Louis." --David Singleton

Posted by blahedo at 10:54pm | Comments (3)

That's one less problem for me

Just yesterday I was reading a post by Neal Whitman on less vs. fewer, wherein he detailed a situation where "fewer" is wrong even if you are someone that normally uses it. (I posted a comment, because hey, the less-vs-fewer issue is one that prescriptivists call me on all the time, as if they can't understand what I'm saying or something.)

Then this morning, I managed to hear an instance of exactly the issue in his blog entry. My coworker John was talking about the convenience of a certain setup, and said:

"There was one fewer person, peh, uh, people in the loop...."

He plugged in "fewer" according to the rule, stumbled because it sounded odd to say "one fewer person", tried to correct it to "people", that sounded weird too, but ended up going with it anyway. Just a few moments later, he uttered basically the same construction:

"...one fewer ^ person in the loop"

The caret indicates where he paused briefly, presumably re-running the same lexical choice debate, in the end settling on the other unsatisfactory choice.

Of course, I don't know that "one less person in the loop" would have felt any better to him, and it's hard to find such things out directly without running into "this is what the rule says" recalcitrance. But it sure sounds better to me.

"In our modern, first world country, there is no reason why we as a society can't afford to support old people retiring after a certain age. They've paid their dues, we've seen to that in the "credits" requirement. Living your last few years in restful peace and quiet, with a $700 check every month as a "Thank you" for having been a productive member of society all your life, should damn well just be a benefit of living in America, God's greatest gift to this brave new millennium." --Eva Sweeney

Posted by blahedo at 11:59am | Comments (4)

13 Apr 2005


A big shout out to Mary and Mrs. B of the IRS call centre in Kansas City. It seems I managed to forget to actually include my W-2 when I filed a couple weeks ago, and last night I got a call from Mary about it. Which I missed, but she tried back again this morning, explained the problem (asked if they had lost it but I said no, probably I'd just forgotten---I had), and told me I could fax it to them. I finally got a chance to get home to grab the forms and get back to the office to fax it around 4:30; about 6 I got another call from them, this time from the evening shift worker, concerned that it hadn't arrived. I said I'd faxed it, and she said she'd check for it and would I like her to call back to confirm it? Sure. And about a half hour later, she did call back, and it just hadn't been distributed from the fax to the desk yet, but now it was there and I was all set.

They didn't have to do any of this. This is just the sort of absentminded mistake that probably thousands of people make every year, and they could just drop it in the pipeline, send me a letter that I get weeks from now, make me file a formal amendment, gaahhh. But instead, they pay people to go through the probably more than a hundred million paper forms to make sure everything's in order, and actually make it easy to fix any problems that inevitably crop up.

So, good for them. And thanks to the two perfectly pleasant women at the call centre who handled my case!

"We attempted to make a legit run at (Barack) Obama with someone with the capacity and skills to make that legit run. Because that person chose not to run a campaign but rather a statewide Pentecostal revival, I regret it as much as anyone...." --Dan Proft, campaign manager

Posted by blahedo at 10:57pm | Comments (1)

"A gentle, firm, sensible lecture"

An extended quote from an article on the British monarchy in this weeks USN&WR ("Family Drama", by Michael Korda, himself a Brit):

Nobody who has listened to President Bush ranting about cutting Social Security benefits or lowering taxes for the rich can doubt that it would do him no harm if he had to listen at regular intervals over a cup of tea to a gentle, firm, sensible lecture about social responsibility from somebody like the queen, who, for all her faults, is very conscious that the poor and the humble are as much her subjects as is the Duke of Devonshire. Prime ministers as powerful as Gladstone, Disraeli, and the Marquess of Salisbury complained that their palms grew sweaty and their knees trembled before their regular "chats" with Queen Victoria, whose stern common sense and careful moral judgment made her a formidable interlocutor. Those who know Queen Elizabeth II say that she is every bit as sharp and formidable as her great-great-grandmother. Indeed, recent photographs of the queen not only show a certain resemblance to Victoria---the frown, the turned-down corners of the mouth, the beady eyes, the expression of barely concealed impatience ("We are not amused")---but make it clear how unnerving it would be to explain to her a policy with which she disagreed.

There's the solution! I wonder if they're accepting applications for readmission.

Posted by blahedo at 8:39am | Comments (0)

12 Apr 2005

Real postage rates

Stupid AP graphics strike again. This time I'm not even the only one to notice; their misuse of the word "real" with respect to time-adjusted costs is addressed on the Language Log.

It is kind of neat, though, that although we read none of the same papers, we were able to see the exact same graphic and complain about it in just the same way...

"If we have to pay off one welfare queen every month to make sure that five people are comfortable enough to pursue their interests and dreams rather than schlepp for Wal-Mart, I think we'll still come out ahead." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 3:33pm | Comments (0)

5 Apr 2005

Follow the thin semitransparent blue line

It's been bouncing around the net, but if you haven't seen it, you need to go check out Google Maps. I am, frankly, in awe of this software. Their user interface is incredible. You can switch back and forth between map view---which is already better than mapquest or any print media out there---and satellite view, which for major metro areas is of sufficiently high resolution that you'll be able to see your car in your driveway.

But, this user interface! First of all, it's drawn well and antialiased, which makes it a helluva lot easier to read. It includes neither too many roads and town names nor too few; zooming in will show you more. Movement can be accomplished by arrow keys or by dragging a location from where it is to where you want it; double-clicking puts it in the middle. All of this is as responsive as dragging a window around your desktop. Rather than a flat star to mark the location in question (and obscuring it), it draws a "pin" that only intrudes by a few pixels at the location, with its head further up (and casting a shadow). There is a little speech balloon also, which prints the address and has links to get directions for it. The directions dialog goes within this balloon, without jarring you out into a different page.

Then, it shows the path with a blue line on the map (which has no other blue features). The map remains zoomable, so you can move around and see the questionable areas. And even while you're in directions mode, you can switch to the satellite view, zoomed in as close as you want, to see what the actual roads look like, still with the blue line showing you the route. And you can click on either endpoint pin to get a speech bubble with a zoomed-in map of just that part, while the main map stays zoomed out. And the zoomed map in the speech bubble can switch between map and satellite view, and zoom in and out, independently of the main window.

Google is like a case study in what to do right. I hope they stay good.

"I am happy, and you should be as well. Let us pray together with joy." --Pope John Paul II, on his deathbed

Posted by blahedo at 2:12pm | Comments (4)

2 Apr 2005

Search and seizure in action

Submitted to the Register-Mail last Sunday:

Last week, you printed an article titled ``Drug sweep at ROWVA negative''. Results aside, I was quite disappointed to learn of the circumstances of the search. According to the article, the search ``was not triggered by any specific knowledge of drug activity at the school.''

I won't dispute the fact that this is technically legal. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in our courts that minors do not benefit from the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution. The superintendent did indeed have the legal ability to spring such searches on his students.

That's not to say I think they're legitimate.

How can any ROWVA teacher now keep a straight face when teaching that in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects us from arbitrary search and seizure? That police need to demonstrate cause before they can get a warrant to search your property? Seen from the eyes of a 16-year-old, an intrusive locker search---when the searchers themselves admit you've done nothing suspicious---starts to look an awful lot like a bunch of redcoats going through all the houses in the village, fishing for contraband.

Either we are doing a poor job at teaching our kids about their fundamental liberties, or else we are doing an excellent job at teaching them that freedom is something that looks good on paper but is too impractical to actually do more than pay lip service to.

Published verbatim in today's paper, aside from introducing a grammatical error.

"Terrorists think they can attack us with conventional weapons? Listen up, Osama: I don't care how long you plan, I don't care how far you go, there's no way you can kill more Americans with your guns than we already do with our own." --Lewis Black

Posted by blahedo at 4:53pm | Comments (5)

Ah, copyeditors

I will shortly post the text of a letter I just got published in the Register-Mail. But first, a letter I wrote to the editor (actually to the editor, not for publication) about their copyediting:

Generally, I'm happy to see letters go through a light editorial process, and I certainly won't object if typoes or other misspelled words are fixed. I don't even mind particularly when something gets edited to a different form with equivalent meaning, as long as it's grammatical.

But it's a little annoying when I see something that was grammatical in the original edited to an incorrect form. In my recent letter, I wrote

...teaching that in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects....

One could legitimately add a comma after "that", making "in this country" a parenthetical to the basic construction "teaching that our Fourth Amendment protects...." That would give you the also-grammatical

...teaching that, in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects....
What was actually printed was the ungrammatical
...teaching that, in this country our Fourth Amendment protects....
Removing the comma after "country" is incorrect; we would not usually write
In this country our Fourth Amendment protects....
without being accused of forgetting a comma. Adding a comma after "that" to introduce a subordinate clause is also incorrect, unless it's part of some parenthetical (as demonstrated above). We would not write
...teaching that, Washington was president.

So, um, here endeth the lesson. Sorry to get so pedantic, but it bugs me when someone else's errors are attributed to me.

Too over the top? Probably. But I'm acutely aware that reading prose with poor spelling and grammar causes one to downwardly revise opinions of the author's argument (not to mention his intelligence), it just drives me up a wall when it's someone else making me look illiterate.

Interestingly, though, one of the errors is just the same sort of weird added comma as noted in a recent Language Log post. A trend?

(PS: notice me not talking about the elephant in the corner. Maybe tomorrow.)

"We're spending resources pat-searching teenagers, ferociously guarding our sacred cracked gong and checking every last Timex on the Circle Line. We're rubbing the rabbit's foot of the magnetometer, hoping that playing at security will keep us safe." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 4:50pm | Comments (0)