Monday, October 20, 2014

Calm Down About Ebola, Please

(Did I never hit send on this? Huh. Well, fixing that now.)

So, it looks like there are a ton of people scared about ebola. And let's be clear, ebola is an awful, terrible thing to actually get. And if you are in Africa, it is a very real threat, as you surely do not need me to tell you from here in North America.

But if you ARE in North America, or Europe, or anywhere developed, the threat of getting ebola is far, far less than some of you are afraid of. The healthcare systems, whatever their cost, are just plain better than Africa's. Far better. Only a few people in the US have actually been infected, with one death at this point. A tragic loss that death is, but only one. The thing is, ebola kills very quickly, and because it kills quickly, it doesn't get very much time to infect new victims. And it takes more than your average flu or cold to actually infect someone, though the two infect at roughly the same rate: the seasonal flu sufferer infects about 1.2-1.5 new people on average; an ebola sufferer infects 1.5-2 people on average. (Chicken pox does 3-17 people.)

National Geographic has a handy FAQ for you. Read it, and then calm down, okay? This is pretty much confined to the hospital system, and only a few specific hospitals, and the people most likely to get infected are the doctors putting their butts on the front lines to treat this. You just walking around will be fine. Relax.

Someone Please Clean India

If you've ever visited India- I haven't- you will know that the country is home to some of the more visually and culturally spectacular places you can witness on this planet. You will also see things that are not quite so spectacular: breathtaking levels of poverty, a caste system that officially is being softened but in practice is only sporadically ignored and remains deeply ingrained, horrific human-rights abuses (particularly towards women), and the most visually obvious, jaw-dropping piles of filth. Garbage strewn about, walls urinated on.

Now let's be clear here. Generating the waste isn't the issue; in fact, waste-generation is very much a problem concentrated in developed nations, cities in particular. India is nowhere near the top in that respect (though they are climbing the rankings). The problem is throwing that trash away so that it can be dealt with. Having ways to deal with it once collected. This is where India fails miserably and they know it. And if they didn't know it, they found out when Bangalore garbage workers went on strike in 2012.

Noah M. Sachs of the Atlantic took a look around in June to provide a fuller assessment of the situation. It's worth a read.

There have been periodic attempts to clean up the place, but obviously, as of yet, none have really worked. Current prime minister Narenda Modi is setting off on another one, the $10 billion Clean India campaign, and at least at first, all castes look to be on board. The higher castes, who have the money, want to be able to look at a prettier country. The lower castes, who don't have the money, have more pragmatic concerns: garbage breeds disease, and if an epidemic of something breaks out, it's going to be the ones who can't afford health care that are going to die first.

When a problem is as major and pandemic as this one is, you tend to see some very oddball fixes pop up, because clearly the so-called 'normal' methods aren't working, and people are willing to try just about anything if it works. Which is why ceramic tiles of religious images have been placed on various city walls around the country. The theory goes, if your god is staring right at you, maybe that will get you to think twice before you pee on the wall he's on.

And out-of-box thinking may be necessary, because a lot of the problem is that the basic infrastructure isn't in place to take care of the garbage, and even if it was, many Indian citizens just plain don't give a hoot about garbage after it gets out of their house, which is typically kept clean. It will go on the street, in front of the neighbors, and they will consider it as no longer their problem. In order to spruce up the country, India must first spruce up people's attitudes. If everyone is on board, like they claim they are, then it can be more about simple infrastructure.

Are they?

Friday, October 17, 2014

I Am Not Singing That Tom Lehrer Song

I just picked up the latest Bathroom Reader. The main one. It's titled Canoramic this year. And in one of the factoids at the bottom- they call them running feet- it said that if you soak a bone in hydrochloric acid overnight, by morning you'll be able to tie it into a knot.

Of course I went about searching for a video, but, alas, I've yet to track one down. But all is not lost. In the process, what I DID manage to find is a YouTube channel called Periodic Videos, run by the University of Nottingham. They, as you might expect, play around with the periodic table a lot... including the bit from them I got linked to that led me to them. In lieu of bone, here is a cheeseburger.

The thing I'd really like to link you to, though, is the playlist they have set up which provides a profile of every individual element in the table. I wouldn't suggest trying to bingewatch the whole set; they're not the most exciting folks on the planet to watch and trying to get too far in might cause you to glaze over a bit and start letting info go in one ear and out the other. Short bursts might be best, no more than you feel you can handle at a time. Or just handpick the elements you aren't familiar with.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Surprisingly Not Idiotic

So there's a show on GSN that premiered not too long ago. It's called Idiotest. The basic idea is this: you are given a visual puzzle, and asked to touch where on the screen the correct answer is (and it is guaranteed to be there somewhere). The trick is, the correct answer is rarely the obvious answer. Often, the picture you're given will appear to show four possible options, but the actual correct answer isn't any of them and is off to the side somewhere.

A sample episode should get the idea across about as well as it's going to get across.

Getting a question wrong will, of course, make you look like an idiot. That's what the questions are all designed to do. And eventually you will, because there's a time limit to answer, so you can't take too long. (Although host Ben Glieb has all the questions asked to him beforehand, so he can explain the answers on the show, and usually he does well.) But I think the format is rather instructive. It will drill some concepts into you that you can take outside of the show, silly as it is. (And oh is it silly.) What does a show like Idiotest drill into you?

*First, observation, obviously. That's the whole object. Idiotest is an observation test. Even though answering quickly makes you eligible for more money, it also makes you more likely to rush yourself and answer something obvious-looking without noticing the true answer. Slow down a bit. Actually take in what's in front of you without making a knee-jerk response. Or else you will look like an idiot. (And even one of the side answers may not be correct, because even though it's more valid than any of the obvious answers, there's an even better answer somewhere else.)

*Second, the importance of reading instructions as they are written. Many of the questions involve subtle spelling changes in one of the question words. For instance, in the above episode, one question asks you to 'touch the opposite of not aloud'. An inattentive scan of the question might misread that as 'opposite of not allowed', and the options available clearly anticipate such a thing, as well as any potential problems with double negatives, with 'prohibited' and 'permitted' both on the board. But of course, the question is talking about 'aloud' as in noise, and 'quiet is there as well. (The contestants almost immediately touched 'prohibited', wrong in both respects, and immediately realized their mistake... but the trick of the game is that realizing your mistake a half-second too late is still realizing it too late. Should have looked a little more closely.)

But you can bypass all of this by simply figuring out that the opposite of 'not X' is, well, X. And so what you're supposed to do is touch 'aloud'.

*Third, learning from your mistakes. Again, every single question will be walked through whether the contestant is right or wrong. Because someone at home is surely wrong. And Ben will take great care, and glee, to explain to you the exact magnitude of your wrongness... as you see a couple times in the episode. That kind of negative reinforcement is pretty quickly going to get you trying to adopt the habits that will make you not be wrong anymore.

And hopefully, after the show's over, those same habits will cross over into other parts of your life.

There's an election in a couple weeks. Lot of people making knee-jerk reactions to a lot of things. Lot of people not taking time to read things carefully. Lot of people making mistakes and failing to learn from them.

Don't be an idiot in the voting booth.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Money: It's Worth Money

So I've been poking around this chart provided by NPR. What it is, is a modification of the mainstay cost-of-living index. Those are the things where you see how much it would cost you to live in certain cities. The problem with them, though, is that they don't take into account how much money you get back by working in those cities, or what you might be likely to buy in those cities. And of course annual salaries of those cities don't help either. What you really want is something that will tell you how expensive it's actually going to feel living there. How well off will you be in that town when all is said and done.

The NPR chart does that for 356 American cities classified as metropolitan areas (out of a possible 381), because the Bureau of Economic Activity has also done that, calling it Real Personal Income (RPI). It puts up some scattered notables in dark text- biggest jumps from perception to reality, the most major cities, and the top and bottom of the list- according to median salary and the purchasing power in that town of that salary. The highest RPI belongs to Rochester, Minnesota (instead of highest-incomed Washington DC, dragged into fifth place); the lowest to Bloomington, Indiana (which is also lowest in median salary).

If you're in France, though, your money appears to be worth... 140 characters. Group BPCE is set to allow its customers (with cellphone numbers and French bank accounts) to link their Twitter accounts to the bank's money transfer service. What you'd do is tweet the transfer service, the Twitter account of the recipient, the amount to be sent and then #envoyer (French for send). Now, you're only going to be able to transfer up to 500 euros that way, so it's not like someone can get drunk and tweet away half a million bucks on a misclick, but this can still go very wrong. Probably it will for someone out there.

People do drunk tweet, after all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Please Remit One TED To Brazil

TED day. Or TED night. It is evening in this place of current darkness and you get a TED talk.

Earlier this month in Rio, economist Dilip Ratha hit the stage to chat about remittances. You know all those immigrants that enter a country, earn some money working and then send a chunk of it home, maybe send for the rest of the family? That's a remittance, and as Ratha will explain, remittances make a rather substantial portion of the world go round. If you're not familiar with them, I suggest you get familiar.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Problems With Stealing A Train

The source story today comes from the Gillette News Record in Wyoming, where Derek Skyler Brux, 22, was charged with the following three crimes: reckless endangering; felony destruction of property; and felony destruction, obstruction or removal of railroad track or fixtures. According to the allegations, he racked up these charges when, after an altercation with his employer, Rail Link, he stole a train and took it for a joyride. Eventually, he left the train yard, went onto the main tracks, and eventually, inevitably, plowed into something. There are no reported injuries, somehow.

When you steal a lot of things- which you should not do, by the way- the intent is usually to either keep it or sell it. Certainly you don't intend to get apprehended.

So how, exactly, is this going to happen with a train? There are a couple major sticking points regarding train theft:

1. Trains are sort of stuck on rails. There aren't very many places you can take a train. At least not safely. The more wheels and more weight a vehicle has, the rougher the ride it's going to have. The whole reason a train is on rails in the first place is that that's the only way the train is going to work as intended: dictate a smooth, gentle track that the train can follow to the fraction of an inch. You don't get to take the train off-road. So there aren't many places you can run, except further down the track. You will, eventually, get caught (and Brux did, during a footchase afterward).

2. Trains are big. They're hard to hide. Shouldn't have to elaborate on that.

3. Let us say, for a moment, that you are in the process of stealing a train, and you are running from the authorities in said train. You spot another train up ahead. Good luck with that (see also: rails).

4. Brux did, in fact, see another train up ahead. What was his response? According to the affidavit:
“I wanted to see what it was like to hit something, so I hit at it.” With a TRAIN. (At under 10 mph, but still.) And then he backed up and hit the train a second time. With a train.

It is regarded as inadvisable by the management of this blog to crash into a train with a second, stolen train just to see what it's like to do so. On top of all of these other things.