Perspectives of Poverty

Having grown up in two poor countries -- Liberia and India -- it is always slightly disorienting to see pictures of people that visitors take of those places. The people always look shabby, weather-bitten and unhappy with life.

Of course, that's not really a true picture. On happiness surveys, India usually falls somewhere in the middle, similar to, say, Portugal. Liberia, with its recent civil war, is a poor place to go around people how happy they are, so it is unsurveyed.

Anyway, all this is to introduce you to a pretty interesting project ("Perspectives of Poverty") that takes "poverty" photographs of poor, rural people in exotic places and then asks those people to pose as their normal selves. On the left, for example, is a maize farmer from Malawi as he would appear in a typical poverty shot, while on the right is how he sees himself.

Scientist scapegoated for preliminary study

The tofu-and-granola crowd is usually respectful of science, but somehow developed a soft spot for a much-discredited study linking the MMR vaccine and autism. As with the fluoride-scare a generation ago, this has probably caused a lot of needless childhood suffering.

The lead author of the study that started the rumor has now been disbarred for professional misconduct. One of the key issues was that Wakefield paid a few pounds to each of the children. The sad thing is that the researcher is probably being made a scapegoat. His original study involved 12 kids -- hardly a representative sample -- and found that 8 of the 12 kids had had a MMR vaccination. He even saw fit to caution:
We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.
In other words, this disproportionate response to somewhat minor transgressions is because of what the media and autism parents groups did with his preliminary study. He's being punished for what a sensational media did.

In any case, MMR vaccines are safe. I wish the medical board didn't have to disbar a scientist just to underline that point.

p.s. After that study, the scientist went on become an outspoken foe of MMR vaccine, but that's neither here nor there. He was being roundly condemned by former colleagues and being embraced by parents groups by that point, so the incentives were pretty lopsided. Everyone wants a little love.

p.s2: Seems like I was wrong. He may have been disbarred over the paying the children charge, but that was like convicting Al Capone on tax evasion charges. He had a financial interest in drumming up a vaccine scare.

Too close to home

This time, the tornadic storm passed rather close to home. We were north of the circulation signature on radar, but took shelter anyway, just to be safe.

The blue box in the picture is the alert area I have set up on an experimental personalized-warning site (it's not open to the general public, and so I'm not posting the link) and the black polygon is the tornado warning area.

Wasps in the wind

On Monday, we were spared -- the closest tornado was about 7 miles west of our home (a mile south of work). A colleague lost the entire second floor of his house; many others need new roofs. Still others are still without power. So, we were fortunate.

The winds at our home were straight-line winds, but were neverthless very strong. Why is just one branch of this tree in our backyard sagging?
Because the wind was so strong that a bunch of wasps had clung to the branch to guard themselves against the wind.
The wasps made it through okay and surprisingly, so did all three saplings in our backyard.

Two crazies in California

No, it's not a parody of a Republican primary debate. It's the real thing:

The candidates had one of their liveliest moments during a lightning round in which they were asked whether anyone on the federal government's no-fly watch list should be able to purchase a gun.

Campbell said no, while Fiorina and DeVore said yes.

That caught Campbell off guard. "Oh, my goodness," he said, sparking laughs.

"It's called the Second Amendment, Tom," DeVore said.

"That's why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Association, right there," Fiorina chimed in.

Campbell said someone should wait until he is off the no-fly list before buying a gun. Fiorina disputed that, saying that many people undeservedly land on the no-fly list, while DeVore said it would infringe on one's right to a trial.

"That is not an infringement on anybody's Second Amendment rights," said Campbell, a former law professor at Stanford. "It seems somewhat unusual to take that position – except perhaps in a Republican primary."

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the three candidates stuck to their pre-spill positions. DeVore and Fiorina said they support more offshore oil drilling, and Fiorina said it was regrettable that the United States did not drill more in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Campbell said he does not support new offshore drilling but instead supports slant drilling from land into the ocean floor.

"I've always opposed putting new drilling platforms off the coast of California, and I'm very sorry to see what's happening in the gulf," Campbell said. "I think a position of consistency over the years should matter for something."

Based on just these two data points: one electable candidate and two crazies.

Just so you know: the no-fly list is the absolutely strict list. This is not the list of people who need additional screening before they get on the plane. This is the list of people that the airline should call the FBI on. The Time Square would-be bomber was put on the no-fly list and he got to board the plane only because he boarded just before the airline re-downloaded that list (you can be sure this bug will be fixed). Even if the plane had taken off, it would have been diverted and he'd have been apprehended because his name was on the no-fly list. The no-fly list consists of the kind of people that would cause an airline bound for Dubai to turn around and land in Frankfurt. It's that kind of list. So, given a choice of being tough on terrorists or strong on guns, the crazies go with guns.

The oil drilling position is not illogical, but is an indicator of temperament. It's one thing to say that we should not run away from off-shore drilling because of one freak accident that is only so bad because of four unlikely events that all happened to coincide. It's another to brazenly ignore the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

What marks a sure crazy is an inability to adjust to a changing world.

The Pakistani wants to be stereotyped as ... Indian?

I was reading this droll essay by a Pakistani Muslim wishing ...

Sometimes, I long for the blurry cultural identities of the 80s, when elementary school friends lumped all Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Egyptian immigrants in one brown-hued bucket: "India." Who wouldn't rather be affiliated with "Slumdog Millionaire," Metro PCS's Ranjit and Chad, Chicken Tikkah Masala, Bhangra remixes and Bollywood instead of religious extremism and Al Qaeda? Pakistani culture has some bomb [sic] biryani, lively and critical political commentary, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and dubious Lollywood entertainment. But we rarely hear anything about that.

when I got stuck at his mention of "Metro PCS's Ranjit and Chad"? Who are Ranjit and Chad? Googling them took me to this article ... the things you miss when you don't watch TV.

It's a little sad that he holds up that cheesy nerdy stereotype as a step up.

Ironically, he probably meant to say "lamb biriyani" but it turned up in the article as "bomb biriyani". Any true Indian nerd would have told him not to rely on spell checkers.

The two dysfunctional institutions

Two excerpts from Congressman Obey's retirement letter that struck a nerve:
All I do know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability destroying rules of the Senate to confused, angry, and frustrated constituents.

I am also increasingly weary of having to deal with a press which has become increasingly focused on trivia, driven at least in part by the financial collapse of the news industry and the need, with the 24-hour news cycle, to fill the air waves with hot air.
This is a successful Congressman who is proud both of his wins (stimulus, healthcare reform) and of his losses (budget alternative to Reagan's tax cuts). He has good things to say about his constituents, his staff, his colleagues in the House and the President.

It's the Senate and the press that Obey dings as being dysfunctional.

If there is an oil spill in Nigeria, does any one know?

You keep hearing that the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is the worst oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska? Really? Consider Nigeria:
The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher.
One oil spill a day for 25 years!