Monday, July 31, 2006

Logical thinking on Sunday?

No, this isn't a religious post.

Yesterday, I decided to make fudgy brownies. I checked a few of the most promising among my cookbooks (since checking them all is pointless and would take far too long). Two recipes were almost identical. One used twice as much butter. The other used half again as much flour. I decided to combine the two for fudgier brownies.

It never occurred to me that the two ingredients might be related.

I have very fudgy, rather greasy brownies that are hard to remove in pretty squares. Thank goodness I made them for myself!

Monday, July 24, 2006

. . . and don't even get me started on Europe

I wrote this earlier, but the site froze up on me. So this will be different.

The Doha round collapsed today.

The point was to encourage free trade. All sides involved want free trade. What differs is their definitions of free.

The talks fell apart over the issue of agricultural subsidies. See, 'developed' countries pay their farmers to produce food. They don't want to stop doing that. More importantly, the farmers that elect certain politicians don't want those subsidies to stop.

The U.S., though, produces a food surplus. We (the taxpayers) are paying farmers to produce more food than we (the citizens) can eat. Is that food given at low or no cost to poor at home and abroad? No; it is thrown away, added to the middle-class waistline, and (most often) sold for a profit overseas. Not a profit for the government or the taxpayers, but a profit for the multinational corporations responsible for distribution of agricultural products in most of the world.

For these corporations, free trade is simply lifting all import barriers. "Subsidies are not import barriers," they cry, "we're not stopping the sale of your products!" For them, nothing could be nicer than to have that form of free trade.

They sell their nice, cheap, overproduced American corn and wheat all over the world at a tidy profit.

Thanks to subsidies, their sources in the U.S. are much cheaper than local sources in the poorer countries that can't afford to subsidize.

Local farmers in the world's worst economies are undercut and driven out of business.

Without a livelihood, they are reliant on non-existent industries and deeply indebted governments for the necessities of life.

The economy of the poorer nations of the world collapses.

The multinationals (based in the U.S. and Europe) get very, very rich.

The politicians get campaign contributions.

Everyone's happy . . .

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Refrigerator Raid Dessert # 1

I may share these with you as they come out well or not. I wanted dessert after lunch. This is what I came up with 2 days before my bi-monthly shopping trip:
brown rice, cooked
cashew butter
plain yogurt
grated fresh ginger
Nice nutty, slightly spicy flavor. Very filling

That Hideous Separation

I've been re-reading That Hideous Strength. As a fan of science fiction/fantasy novels and C. S. Lewis, this is an old favorite. Amazingly enough, despite my bibliophilic tendencies, this is my third copy of the book, the first 2 having walked away. It is that good.

One of the concepts I had never really considered before jumped out at me this time. (This is why I re-read books). In a conversation, the idea of separations becoming more evident, more distinct over time is posited.
. . . at a given point in its history you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous.
And this has been recent news?!? The debate over the red/blue state divide is simply an extension of this concept, here mentioned in a novel copyright 1945. I guess this means that things are going to get worse, more divided, less co-operative. Hard thoughts for a fierce independent like myself to get a hold on. This indicates that my choices about who to vote for are 'more momentous' every year.

Then we come to my current workout book (being the book I read at the gym while on the machines). I picked it up at a used bookstore I like because the title looked to be on the lines of a current interest of mine, A Moral Mandate to Vote. I've been reading God's Politics with my Sunday School class, so I thought this would be a logical extension. A quick scan of the back seemed to concur: Social Security, war, helping the poor. I should have read more closely. As far as I can tell, the MD/author seems to think the only issue one should consider when voting is abortion. He spends the first 3-4 chapters (as far as I've gotten) explaining the dire importance of abortion being considered wrong. I can only suppose we'll go from there to the dire importance of something wrong being illegal, connecting us to the argument that abortion should be illegal. He hasn't sold me on that being the only platform that matters, though. Not yet. If he does, I'll be impressed.

I'm all for debate on abortion. I think it's a dangerous concept to have bouncing around in anybody's head, the idea that a fetus is basically a parasite. It resembles the (much less controversial or important) debate of what makes a flower a weed. (On this topic, by the way, Bush's veto of stem cell research funding is simply carrying his side of the argument to its logical conclusion, just like Singer's support of infanticide is on the other side. You can't fault them for that. Other things, maybe, but not their wholehearted support of one side of the debate. Which, I guess, is the point of this essay.)

But abortion being the only issue? The only issue? The author goes to great length to cite the number of Biblical references to God's care for life. I wonder if they outnumber the references to caring for the poor, or forgiving debts, or any number of possible criteria for choosing a candidate that he claims pale in comparison. Or even if we should rate the importance of an issue to God by the number of verses we can make relate to it.

I can't sharpen my political views to one talking point. I wouldn't want to. I have a mental list (abortion is on there, but so is war/peace, the poor, education, health care, international diplomacy, and any other number of things a politician might confront). I try to keep an open mind. I have voted both for and against candidates based on how they objectively measured up to that list. The 2-party system doesn't work for me. I don't want things to be divided more than they have to be.

But maybe that's Lewis' point. Maybe we've progressed to where this division has become essential. If that's the case, maybe I should move to England or Canada . . .

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


. . . a critic is really just anyone who thinks out loud about something he or she cares about, and gets into arguments with fellow enthusiasts. -A.O. Scott, NYT
I am new to the world of fandom, really. Or at least fairly green. While I was friends with a number of groups that are generally associated with fandoms (Anime Club, Gaming Society) in college, it was in the role (once on the web page for one of them, even) of official unofficial member. I enjoyed their offerings on occasion, but was never devoted enough to actually bother joining. Clubs without dues, so far as I know, so you see how non-intense my commitment was. I would happily discuss Sailor Moon and Gundam Wing, happily play Once Upon A Time or Settlers of Catan, but that was about as far as I went.

Then a certain boy introduced me to webcomics. And I was quickly indoctrinated to the ways of fandoms, both by observation and discussion. 'Cause I'm a sucker for plot lines and character development. (Yes, I'm one of those girls who fell in crush with characters in books. Still do, sometimes.) I don't join communities . . . yet . . . but I do read comments on occasion. And I read (and occasionally comment on) Websnark. Who was remarking today on the entitledness of fandom.

Then along comes the New York Times. Also the fault of said boy; before him, I was happily shallow with Time and CNN International. And today's article about whether movie critics are getting it wrong, because they aren't managing to second guess audiences. His conclusion was that no, they shouldn't be. But the comment above . . .

First, is argument a critical (pardon the pun) part of criticism? Can one be a critic by discussing something artistic or thought-provoking in a movie if no-one disagrees with you? Is it really possible, actually, to take a stand on any issue without finding disagreement somewhere? Only if your audience is really, really small, so no big deal there.

More important is the comment that to critique something, you have to care about it. Care. As in feel some emotion. So criticism cannot be detached? No, not really. When people tell you, giving your critique of something, that you're too emotional, you might want to ask why you'd be taking your time if you weren't emotional. The logical extension of this is that there may be a fallacy involved in our system of professional critics. They may be emotional about artistry, but not always the piece in question. Are they still critics if they write/talk/etc. about something that had no effect on them (be it revulsion or exultation)?

Something to remember when you read the movie/book/music reviews.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Vain to be an American

This is a problem. I can't really solve it, sorry. Much, much wiser people than I have fallen into it. It's a fairly common situation in the US. I am as guilty of it as any, although we all experience it in slightly different ways.

Cultural elitism.

Remember (and I'm sure you do) the song 'God Bless America'? This song has been attacked by non-Christians, and I think they have a point. When we sing this song (as most churches do every year around the 4th of July), we are asking God to bless our country, and no other.

I'm not saying we shouldn't pray for blessings on our country, but we shouldn't do so to the exclusion of all others. I much prefer the less common 'This Is Our Song'. It is careful to point out that, yes, we have a beautiful country, and so do a lot of other people. Besides, Finlandia is a much prettier tune.

The problem of cultural chauvinism is especially prevalent in the development world, where I would like to spend the bulk of my career, so I've been giving it a bit of thought lately. I've always known that it existed, even within the different groups of the US. I have several good examples from my first working trip overseas, in Mongolia; not from the Mongolians, but from being the only Yankee on the American team. Also, the only member of a liturgical church. At times, I felt more accepted by the locals because they expected and embraced the differences.

That trip was the first time I witnessed the tying of the gospel to cultural norms. During our devotions on the 4th of July, we sang 'God Bless America' with a room full of Mongolians. I'm not kidding. It was considered an essential part of their English lessons. Even then, something about that grated on me.

The problem is that when we correlate universal truths, like the gospel or scientific advancements, with our societal understanding of them, rejection of any part of our culture results in rejection of the truths. We have irrevocably connected the baby to the bathwater, and both may get thrown out.

There's another side to cultural elitism. When we see people living more primatively, poorer, or with less education, we assume them to know, well, nothing. Rather than seeing them as people who have lived in their milieu for centuries or millenia, who may understand the environment and resources available to them better than any cursory survey, we consider them to be fully ignorant. Denying any gifts from their history, we forge ahead with our plans. This may be worse in the long run. As Bryant Myers writes in Walking With the Poor, the poor know how to live as poor. They've been doing it for a while.

One of the only solutions I've seen, and the only one I consider viable, is listening. To listen to people, rather than act on our understanding, is a rather humbling experience. As Americans, especially, we have trouble letting control out of our hands. If we don't, though, we may ruin a unique opportunity to serve.

You'll notice, perhaps, that I didn't bring political discussions to bear on this topic. I could, believe me. I'll choose not to in the interests of interesting more people and scaring away fewer. Nothing shuts some people down as much as the word politics . . .

Friday, July 07, 2006

I am a cold person

I just read a fantastic book, suggested by Christian Vet Missions for any short-term team leaders (which I am, at the moment). Foreign to Familiar is a very generalized guide to two types of cultures: hot and cold. New York, by the way, is cold (and yes, most of the time the heat is related to the climate as well as the culture; Kansas is rather luke-warm).

In reading, I realized why I was so often miserable when I worked in Senegal. It's a good country with nice people and an oppressively hot climate. It is also a very hot culture. This means that people consider relationships to be paramount. It means that their communication is very indirect, in order to avoid upsetting anyone. It means that they define themselves in groups more than as individuals. It means that their concept of event timing is looser.

As the title says, I'm a cold person. I come from a cold culture. I focus on results. I say what I mean and little else (if I know what I mean; otherwise I blabber). I consider myself to be an individual and act accordingly. I schedule.

In Senegal, I waited for people to invite me. That means I only visited with American missionaries. I never realized that the Senegalese were waiting for me to come visit. I could have sat down and chatted with any group I saw and been welcomed, but they would never actually tell me so. If I had been more proactive about meeting people, I would not have been so lonely. Instead, I was almost paralyzed by the treatment I got from some of the men, who very politely asked me if I would like to be their mistress. Since that came from almost every man I talked to, I assumed most of the men were like that. If only I had known -- those were the exceptions! The non-predatory men were assuming I would come talk to them if I wanted a conversation.

I did experience the indirect communication problem first-hand. The guest house where I lived was run by a man who only spoke Wolof. The cook, however, spoke French. The maid, when I spoke to her in French, smiled and responded to my greetings. She didn't talk much, but I assumed she was shy. She always smiled and nodded. Until the day I asked her a question that was not yes or no, when she smiled and nodded while I waited for an answer. She saw that she hadn't answered my question, so she led me over to the kitchen. The cook informed me that she didn't speak French, but he would translate for me. For 1 month I had chatted pleasantly at her and she hadn't understood most of it, but she wouldn't make me feel bad by letting me know! Imagine a New Yorker not telling someone if they didn't understand -- wouldn't happen.

The cultural differences also explain why I was joined at my table by a man I didn't know when eating at a restaurant once. I thought he was being pushy. He thought he was keeping both of us from being alone. As an introvert, I rarely have a problem with being alone. When I work in hot cultures, I'll need to be willing to give that up.

The biggest idea I need to remember and work on is the task-oriented mentality I bring to any project. I am an administrator at heart. I work in a detail- and results-focused industry. While I consider myself a big-picture person, the big picture I see is one that focuses on productivity and usefulness. This is all the result of being in a cold culture both personally and professionally. In hot cultures, though, the keystone of every interaction is the relationship. Especially going on a mission trip, but even just working, in those cultures I must spend more time on the people. I have known this cultural difference for a long time, after a Texan accused me of being rude because I cared more about not making people wait than taking more time with others. What I have to remember is that, when working in other cultures, I need to abide by the prevailing cultural values. I can't demand that my culture be accepted for me, because that is the kind of individualistic thinking that is also cultural. I need to let go.

Even in Kansas, I should remember this. As I said above, Kansas is luke-warm. In many ways, especially with people my age and younger, I can fit right in. With older people, though, and especially at church, I have to adapt to a warmer culture. People move a little slower, take a little more time with friendliness than I'm used to. In Kansas, though, the big cultural shock I have is the difference between high-context cultures (like the Northeast US) and low-context cultures (like the West and Mid-West, to varying degrees). Where I come from, there are protocols for communication. People dress up to show respect, for work or church. Basically, there are rules for human interactions. We're not as strict as Northern European cultures, but we follow a guidebook we've been studying since birth. In Kansas, there seem to be fewer rules about societal interactions. People are more casual, less formally respectful. They're not as easy-going as Californians, but they appear to be happy to let the rules be more lax. My cold, formal cultural background makes me a bit more likely to take offense. I need to learn to accept that difference.

The decisions I've come to are easier to say than to do, as they usually are. At least I have words for what's going on now.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pedaling prose

I bike pretty much everywhere I don't walk. I will drive only if the situation demands (the situation has been known to include sheer laziness, but that's fairly rare). Win-win-win situation, here: I spend less on gas and parking, I get more exercise, the environment gets less polluted. I don't have many opportunities that are so well balanced with good, so I enjoy this one.

Funny backstory: I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was in about 5th grade, and even then I was pretty bad at it until recently. I lived on a farm on badly/unpaved roads with lots of hills. There was nowhere to safely learn to ride and nowhere to safely ride to. When I did learn, it was because my best friend, who lived in a town with sidewalks and flatness, wanted to go somewhere that was too far to walk. She taught me to ride in one quick lesson (at least, that's how I remember it). That may be why I was pretty unstable until now.

The bike was my vet school graduation present. I think we all figured: hey, Kansas, flat, good biking. Also, the amusing joke my father can tell about a car for college, a bike for vet school, maybe sneakers for the MS.

The truly lovely thing about biking, for me, is nature. Don't get me wrong, Manhattan is a nice small city, with lots of trees and some nice small hills, a number of parks, about as much as you could ask for, nature-wise, in a town this size. But . . . I moved here from Ithaca, NY. As in Ithaca is Gorges. As in a backyard with a private entrance to a 5-mile city trail and gorge access. As in, once, a 16-mile hike from my backyard without backtracking or more than 1/2 mile of road. I like nature and in Ithaca it was literally right out the back door. Even barring the fact that, in my basement apartment, there are no backdoors, nothing I have now comes close. I live in a complex surrounded by student rental properties. On sunny afternoons, the pool area has a radio competing with the deck radios of the upper dwellers. Even campus is short on the gardens and high on the square sandstone buildings.

But on the bike. Not during the day, usually; I spend most of my road time after 8am keeping an eye on drivers doing stupid things. First thing in the morning, though, at 5:45 on my way to the gym, I can appreciate what nature there is. It's a bit like a soul shower, refreshing and cleansing if a little short. There are sunrises that take my breath away. In winter (when I'm trying not to breath too much, anyways), the stars are like a bowl of eternity, even through the streetlamps. The birds sing. One morning, I came across a murder of crows, clutching every branch big enough to clutch in a row of trees on campus, occasionally taking turns wheeling on sentry and calling the news ghoulishly; I learned why it was called a murder from the chill it gave my spine. Beautiful. I get the same sort of thing on a different route on weekends, during Saturday runs to the Farmer's Market and Sunday walk/rides to church (the side of the slash I'm on depends each week on when I get up and what service I'm trying to make). Happily, most of this town sleeps in on the weekends, so I can have my morning nature-solitude fix and a bit more sleep.

On days I get my hit (and it is an addiction), I'm happier and calmer and generally better off. I have the bike commute to thank for that.

Biking. What won't they think of next?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Teenage Mutant Kung-Fu Chicken Virus

Today's issue of Daily News at meatingplace noted an AP story that left me wanting to weep, or laugh, or laugh 'til I weep. Apparently the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. has decided to remove all chickens and ducks from the children's petting zoo as a precaution against bird flu.

Ummm . . .

First, let's set the record straight: the current circulating strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza subtype H5N1 (commonly referred to as simply H5N1, or 'bird flu') has not been detected in the Western Hemisphere. Ever. We have seen other HPAI subtypes. We have seen LPAI in a variety of forms. We DO NOT HAVE the scary, scary bird flu that is using Asia as a private playground.

Now that we've established the fact that the petting zoo of the National Zoo (in fact, all American petting zoos) are presumably free of H5N1, why are the birds going into quarantine? Little-known disease transmission fact: children are incapable of being infected by a virus from a source that is free of said virus. Really. Promise. Some may argue that this is a defensive, protective measure on behalf of the Zoo, an ounce of prevention and all that. Really, if the pet birds at the National Zoo, in the center of the Eastern Seaboard, become infected with H5N1 without our surveillence network noticing it elsewhere first, we have bigger problems. If the virus is picked up in the near vicinity, say, the continent, there should be plenty of time to pull the birds and test them.

No, this is not a medical decision. This is not risk management. The decision to remove those birds was the direct result of fear-mongering on behalf of the ignorant media, as is the stockpiling of anti-virals and vaccines. The media has decided to portray H5N1 as varelse, as something to guard against, as a war that we did not choose to fight. It is not. Avian influenza, in its many forms, is a disease. It is controlled by good hygeine, vaccination, judicious use of medication. It is not controlled by panic or dramatic gestures, such as the act of the National Zoo described above.

The irony in this move lies in the inherent dangers of petting zoo disease transmission. Here's a fun exercise: Google "petting zoo" and Salmonella. Now try it with E. coli. Scared yet? As a public health nightmare, petting zoos rank right up there with cruise ships. I certainly hope the National Zoo regularly runs fecal swabs from its petting zoo for the more common bugs. Unlike H5N1, you see, a lot of the dangerous fecal pathogens don't bother the animals carrying them.

What do I suggest? Thank you for asking, National Zoo. Handwashing stations: make them fun, easy, and everywhere, demand that children use them at the exit and suggest them whenever they get their hands visibly dirty. Monitoring: remove sick animals (not to sound juvenile, but duh!), regularly test healthy ones for any and all zoonotics. And run a risk analysis before doing something like this -- the quick and dirty ones aren't all that hard, really. Weigh the risk (minimal) with the implied risk (panic-inducing, to some parents).

Protect us from the diseases we have, prepare us for the ones we don't, and give us the wisdom to know the difference.

Cheating and you (or me)

Is cheating in small things something that will affect the rest of your life? I have to wonder because I have to admit: I cheat.

I cheat on sudoku. The hard ones. Specifically, the tough ones here. I do them every day, and only once have I succeeded in solving the toughest one without guessing. Sometimes it only takes one guess, sometimes many, but I use the "check moves" option as often as necessary to finish in one sitting.

What I'm wondering, though, is whether or not this little cheat has an impact on my view of cheating in the rest of my life. For instance, I once abhorred the thought of passing over the speed limit; now, I consider it to be acceptable to go "5 over" on the highway. Are these things related? Am I on a downward spiral that will lead to data purgery and professional ruin? Or am I over-reacting?

I try to maintain a strict ethical code in my life. I don't lie, I buy local and pay extra for organic, I don't set foot in Walmart -- but even there I have a little cheat (Target). Is it possible to live by your principles in absolutely everything? I suppose that depends on the principles in question; I could easily live by the 'moral' of looking out for number 1.

I'm reminded of Paul, when he wrote "For what I would, I do not; but what I hate, I do" (Romans 7:15). I often think of that passage, because it applies so well to me. Procrastination, laziness, impatience, and yes, cheating are all things that I hate doing, but I do them. I so rarely live entirely the way I want. I suppose if I did, there would be nothing to work for; then again, if I lived up to my ideals, I would be happy to work without the impetus of self-improvement (motivation is one of those areas in which I fail frequently).

So, self-improvement in mind, I should stop cheating. Does that mean I should stop trying to do the sudokus that are beyond my ability? Or stop trying to finish them? I don't know. I don't even know if I'll stop cheating on them, even after all of this. But I will think about it seriously if I do.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Global Cow


26 year old American female, primarily Caucasian
brown hair, hazel eyes, freckles
5'4" and around 155 pounds
middle-middle class and over-educated (if there is such a thing)

Who am I? Well, I am (professionally) a veterinary epidemiologist, focusing on food security and international development. I am (socially) an introvert and a bit of a geek. I am (spiritually) a Christian. I am (personally) a bibliophile, an amateur musician, and a foodie.

What am I going to talk about? Well, all of the above (probably including the weight, though not the height so far as I can see). Whatever catches my attention -- public health, food production, current events, theology, books, music, cooking -- will make it in. I know, this is not the best way to run a blog. You want a topic? Too bad, I'm going to write what I feel like writing.

Why the heck am I doing this? My boyfriend started one (for a good reason) and I got inspired. I like to write. I often have thoughts that need to be shared. I'm often inspired by essayists.

Who's going to read? I have no idea. I may tell some friends. I may not tell others. If you like, read on. If not, don't bother. Whatever you do, enjoy your web time!