Monday, August 31, 2009

Let's Drop This Tennessee-Is-a-Parallelogram Nonsense

Yesterday in the car Meyer and I were having a conversation about quadrilaterals. Meyer wanted me to explain parallelograms. Searching for an example, I nearly made the mistake of saying, "Tennessee is shaped like a parallelogram." I'm glad I caught myself.

The Tennessee-as-parallelogram meme is a common educational device, both in the Volunteer State and elsewhere in the country. Thanks to minutes of research on Google, I found it in public school curriculum from Mississippi and Ohio. In the Biloxi, MS document, Tennessee's supposed parallelogram shape is the subject of a story problem:

The state of Tennessee resembles a parallelogram. Its height is approximately 100 miles, and its base is approximately 380 miles. Find the approximate area of Tennessee.

Here's the problem: Regardless of what they say here, here, here, or here, Tennessee does not at all resemble a parallelogram.

As you can see above, if one approximates Tennessee's borders using a quadrilateral, the north and south borders are nearly parallel. The east and west borders are not. Not even close. Thus Tennessee resembles a trapezoid—with one pair of sides that are parallel and one pair of sides that are not. If you're looking for a parallelogram–two sets of parallel sides—use Colorado or Wyoming (which also happen to be rectangles).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Morning Trivia

I've decided to make this a semi-weekly feature. Here's this morning's challenge:

Name the last American President to take office (i.e. begin his first term) in a year that was a prime number. Also name the year.

You may use a calculator, but please do not use a list of prime numbers that you find on the Internet.

Dude. Really?

That's all I could say after seeing this. It's a survey on health care reform from the Republican National Committee, and the fourth question reads:

Yes. The RNC is suggesting that Democrats will use voter registration information to deny coverage to Republicans. (Of course, Democrats may not even be in control when America's Affordable Health Choices Act goes into effect—if it passes.) Most of the other questions on the survey likewise are loaded and misleading.

Not quite as egregious but still disturbing is the misinformation that the Family Research Council is circulating. Among other things, they claim that:

Under the proposed health insurance scheme being advanced by President Obama and his allies in Congress, Americans would be compelled to . . . . [f]oot the bill for government panels that would foster the notion that self-termination
(i.e., suicide) is a sound moral and financial option for the elderly.

I expect a certain amount of exaggeration and truth-stretching by anyone involved in the health care debate. (To be fair, proponents of the Affordable Health Choices Act have stretched the truth when explaining how the plan will be paid for and have dismissed concerns about long-term effects of the plan.) But this is a blatant, obvious, and shameless falsehood coming from a supposedly Christian organization.

As much as I believe that elected representatives should take seriously the concerns of their constituents, I'm convinced that many of the people who are most passionate about the issue of health care reform really have no idea what they're talking about. It seems ridiculous to me that a Senator or Representative might vote against the Affordable Health Choices Act because of constituents who are worried about forced euthanasia, care being denied to Republicans, government committees that will make decisions that should be made by one's doctor, and other ideas that are not a part of the plan and are not remotely similar to anything that is in the plan.

Related: Anne Lamott has an excellent op-ed on the subject of health care reform in yesterday's LA Times.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

PETA Really Gets My Gooch

I'm a vegetarian and an animal lover, but I don't really care for PETA. Here's one of many reasons why:

PETA's new billboard campaign in Florida is raising eyebrows and ire among women and health groups. A drawing on billboards in Jacksonville depicts an obese woman with the phrase, "Save The Whales, Lose The Blubber: Go Vegetarian."

I won't post a picture of the offending billboard, but you can see it here.

PETA recently decided to take down the billboards, but president and founder Ingrid Newkirk wasn't exactly apologetic:

America's obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America's Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait . . . .

Going meat-free can make a huge difference. Studies show that vegetarians are, on average, 10 to 20 pounds lighter than meat-eaters and that a vegetarian diet reduces our risk of heart disease by 40 percent and adds seven or more years to our lifespan.

I don't doubt that, on the whole, vegetarians are lighter than meat eaters (though "10 to 20 pounds" is meaningless without information on height, body fat percentage, etc.). But as an overweight vegetarian, I know from experience that fatty, high-calorie, meatless foods are easy to come by. But whatever. Newkirk is right that vegetarian diets are generally healthier than meaty diets, but PETA (and Newkirk in particular) goes too far in trying to get this point across.

Let me put it this way: Comparing factory farming to the Holocaust convinces no one to eat less meat; getting supermodels and zealous vegans to pose nude convinces no one to stop wearing fur; and picking on fat people will convince no one to lose weight with a meat-free diet. If anything, this recent campaign encourages overweight persons to lose weight on the Atkins diet just to spite PETA. Insulting and offending people tend not to be effective ways to persuade people to change their behavior.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I lost a significant amount of weight not long after becoming a vegetarian ten years ago. Vegetarianism may have been responsible for this weight loss, but switching to zero-calorie soft drinks, jogging regularly, and poverty likely were also factors. And all of that weight came back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday Night Trivia

This may or may not become a recurring feature. At any rate, here's tonight's trivia challenge:

There are two pairs of states for which both states' two-letter postal abbreviations use the same two letters. Name them.

To clarify: If you add Canadian provinces to the mix, you end up with a third pair. I'll use this pair as an example—the two-letter postal abbreviations for Kansas (KS) and Saskatchewan (SK) use the same two letters. There are two more, entirely American, pairs. Those are the ones I'm looking for.

The first person to correctly answer the question may or may not win a prize of some sort. I'm leaning toward "may not," but I might come up with something.

Oh yeah, try to answer the question without looking up the abbreviations on Wikipedia,, or some other reference site.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I'm Too Tired to Blog Tonight . . .

. . . but I did clean up the sidebar and update the blogroll. I doubt many people look at my blogroll, but if you do, I've added some great blogs and purged some that are no longer active.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Maybe Exercise Really Does Help You Lose Weight

Remember that Time article about how exercise doesn't help people lose weight? Here's an article that debunks that article.

Monkey Ball—In a House, on Earth

Meyer is proud of his Super Monkey Ball scores.

Resha Kate loves Three Hit Combo

Here's a conversation I had with Resha Kate after we dropped off Meyer for school:

Me: Where are we going after school today, Puffs?

Resha Kate: To see your mommy and daddy.

Me: Where do grandma and grandpa live?

Resha Kate: Indiana!

Me: And where do we live?

Resha Kate: In a house.

Me: Yes, but what state do we live in?

Resha Kate: The earth.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Everything You Need to Know About Health Care

For what it's worth, here are some links to the most helpful and insightful articles I've read on the subject of health care reform:

The Onion: "Film Adaptation Of 'The Brothers Karamazov' Ends Where Most People Stop Reading Book"

This is one of the best Onion articles I've ever read:

According to director D.J. Caruso, great care was taken to painstakingly recreate the experience of slowly inching one's way through the dense work of literature. Starring Viggo Mortensen as both Alyosha and Aleksey, depending on the scene, and Laura Linney as someone's mother or aunt, the film opens with a three-minute-long summary taken directly from the novel's back cover.

"I've been picking up and putting down The Brothers Karamazov since college, so this was a dream project for me," Caruso said. "I can still remember the first time I ever tried to read it. The obscure, often archaic prose, the overwhelming cast of characters, the frustration of reading 10 whole pages and then realizing that I didn't understand a thing—it all had such a profound effect on me."

"I didn't want to lose any of that when I made the movie," he added.

Friday, August 14, 2009

If You Need Fewer Than Seven Hours of Sleep Each Night, You're Probably a Mutant

As heard on NPR yesterday:

A team of researchers has found a genetic mutation that appears to allow some people to get by on less sleep than others. The team found the unusual mutation in a mother and daughter pair who appear to sleep less. . . .

"Normal people need eight to eight-and-a-half hours of sleep," says Ying-Hui Fu, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco who led the study. By contrast, the two people with the mutation seemed to need just five or six hour's rest each night. The work appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

I get about six hours of sleep each night. My body usually doesn't let me get much more. Does this mean that I'm more highly evolved than most human beings? Perhaps. It may also mean that I would have been eligible to attend Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Children.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Don't Ask People to Embrace A Public Health Plan; I Do Ask People to Act Like Decent Human Beings

I have opinions on the health care debate, but I won't try to persuade you to agree with me. Not now, anyway. Instead I'll say a few things about the debate itself. The conversation (and only in the loosest sense of the word can it be called a "conversation") about health care reform has brought out the worst in the American people. Grown men and women are acting like children and children are being used as propaganda tools in a debate that they (and, apparently, the adults who enlisted them) know little or nothing about.

That said, here are a few things that every person who discusses health reform in this nation needs to keep in mind:

  • Avoid obvious mis-truths and distortions. I'm sure there are plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose the health care bills that the House and Senate are currently mulling over, but "Obama wants to euthanize old people Soylet Green-style" is not one of them. Allowing Medicare to pay for consultations about living wills and assorted other end-of-life matters does not equate to creating "death panels." If something you read in an e-mail or hear about on talk radio sounds like something from a dystopian science fiction novel, do some research before you pass it along. Websites such as Fact and Politifact aren't perfect, but they do their homework. Even if you disagree with Fact Check or Politifact's conclusions, these sites tend to be more thorough in their assessment than the average chain e-mail writer or AM radio personality.

  • Don't assume that the worst possibility is the only possibility. Consider again the supposed death panels. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, and other high-profile opponents of health care reform saw language in the bill about paying for patients to discuss with physicians end-of-life issues, and they assumed the worst: that the government would be deciding when grandma's time was up. A more reasonable (and in this case correct) interpretation of this same language would be that public health care would pay for people to educate themselves about living wills, hospice care, and that sort of thing.

    Similarly, last week this appeared on the White House blog:

    There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to

    This says to me that the White House wants to be aware of health care-related rumors so that they can respond directly to people's concerns and misconceptions. But some, including former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and current Texas Senator John Cornyn, concluded that President Obama was putting together an "enemies list" that he would use to persecute or blacklist his political opponents (or something). I don't know that publicly soliciting tips from anyone with an Internet connection is a good idea on the administration's part, but it definitely isn't an effective way to compile a list of enemies.

  • Don't threaten your political opponents with violence. This one should be obvious, but, judging from this and this, it isn't.

  • Avoid invalidation by association. It's tempting to lift up people who say things like "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" or to point to conservative publications that take Stephen Hawking's name in vain and accidentally undermine their own argument as grounds to dismiss all opponents of health care reform. But that isn't fair, and focusing on the loudest misguided voices often is just a way to avoid engaging people who have legitimate concerns. Granted, those on both sides of the debate should respond to influential people with national platforms who misrepresent or ignore the facts. But a few bad apples (or even an orchard full of bad apples) do not invalidate the case for or against health care reform.

So there you go.

Monday, August 10, 2009

By Popular Demand

A few people had asked for this, so here it is:

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Why Exercise Doesn't Necessarily Help One Lose Weight

I had been pleased with myself for surpassing my weekly fitness goal: 2.5 miles in the pool and 2.5 hours on the Wii® Fit. (I've swam 2.8 miles and spent 2 hours and 44 minutes on the Fit, and Saturday isn't over yet.) Then I checked the mail and found this story on the cover of this week's Time magazine. Here's a highlight:

"In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless," says Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher. Many recent studies have found that exercise isn't as important in helping people lose weight as you hear so regularly in gym advertisements or on shows like The Biggest Loser — or, for that matter, from magazines like this one.

The basic problem is that while it's true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger. That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn't necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

In short, people who engage in short bursts of vigorous exercise are likely to recover with high calorie drinks and snacks and long periods of inactivity. The article makes the point that half of a muffin or a bottle of Gatorade® can negate all the calories burned after a 20 minute run or a few miles on the elliptical machine. Even those who resist the temptation to celebrate their morning bike ride with a plate of pancakes and a two-hour nap may find themselves eating more and moving less during the remainder of the day than they would have if they hadn't spent the morning cycling.

Still, the article acknowledges that regular physical activity is essential to weight loss:

The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity — the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented — may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat.

I would like to think that I do pretty well in this regard. I always take the stairs, I do my own yard work, and I'm an obsessive cleaner who lives with three small children and six cats.

My problem is food. It always has been. Even as a vegetarian who drinks zero-calorie soft drinks, I find plenty of ways to include high-calorie and high-fat foods in my diet. And the fat- and calories-per-serving of the food I eat is less of an issue than the number of servings that I consume.

I had hoped that by exercising I could avoid confronting my food problem. But that strategy has never worked, and it's become clear to me that it never will.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Yeah, Insurance Companies Don't Like to Pay for Babies

Seemingly each week in Malachi's first few months of life, we received a statement from our insurance company regarding some part of the labor-delivery-postpartum process that the company had decided not to cover. Paying for the birth of our third child required most of the money in our checking account, and Malachi came through the birth canal with no significant complications and was healthy and ready to go home in two days. (I can only imagine what sort of medical debt we would have accrued had a C-section been necessary or had Malachi required a trip to the NICU.)

But our experience was mild compared to writer Sarah Waldman's recent ordeals. From Double X, via Slate:

Our six-month-old daughter cost over $22,000.

You’d think, with a number like that, we must have used fertility treatments—but she was conceived naturally. You’d think we went through an adoption agency—but she is a biological child. So surely, we were uninsured.

Nope. Birthing our daughter was so expensive precisely because we were insured, on the individual market. Our insurer, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, sold us exactly the type of flawed policy—riddled with holes and exceptions—that the health care reform bills in Congress should try to do away with. The “maternity” coverage we purchased didn’t cover my labor, delivery, or hospital stay. It was a sham. And so we spent the first months of her life getting the kind of hospital bills and increasingly aggressive calls from hospital administrators that I once believed were only possible without insurance.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Quick Kids Updates

Pics of Meyer on the first day of kindergarten

Resha Kate names her favorite television shows

Monday, August 03, 2009

I Miss the Days When the History Channel Showed Programs About History

These days it's all UFOs, cryptids, 2012 doomsday nonsense, sensationalized takes on biblical scholarship and church history, and Ice Road Truckers. The Universe, my favorite show on History, is fantastic; but it isn't history. It belongs on Discovery Channel.

Of course, History isn't alone in this regard. Jokes about MTV not playing music have become as stale and predictable as cracks about the other guy in Wham! (His name is Andrew Ridgeley; he's now in a life-partnership with one of the girls from Bananarama.) Lame jokes aside, there hasn't been much music on Music Television for a long time. VH1, the other supposed music network, held on after MTV had fallen, showing music-related programming well into this decade. Then the channel decided to devote itself to Bret Michaels and Flavor Flav's non-musical pursuits. Not so good. The Learning Channel—some time after Trading Spaces became popular but before shows about families with lots of kids became the channel's bread and butter—started calling itself TLC, hoping that people would forget that those letters once stood for something. Sci-Fi recently rebranded itself Syfy. We'll see what comes of that. Perhaps most disturbingly, programming on Cartoon Network is no longer limited to cartoons. (Cartoon will be showing Home Alone 3 this weekend.)

I miss having niche channels on basic cable. I miss the comfort that comes with knowing that I can turn on MTV and expect to see music videos or History and expect to learn about past events not involving space aliens, Nostradamus, or the Mongolian death worm. Do I have to get digital cable or satellite to get such channels? Do people really prefer Rock of Love to Behind the Music? Sadly, I expect that the answer to both of those questions is "yes."