New Year's Resolutions - A Waste of Time

On this final day of 2010, I went to the gym.  Not because I really felt like exercising, but because I recognize that I might have to take a four to six week sabbatical from the gym as the machines become clogged with out of shape people making a half-hearted attempt to stick to their New Year resolutions.  Which brings me to the point of this rambling diatribe - are New Year's resolutions even worth the breath used to utter them?

I've been a semi-regular fixture at a fitness center for some time.  I say "semi-regular" because I have been known to blow off physical maintenance when writing a thesis, editing an article, or doing some other time-consuming effort.  But I go enough to recognize the ebb and flow of gym usage.  Every year, just after the first of January, it becomes all but impossible to get a treadmill or weight machine before midnight because it seems that most people resolve to either lose weight or get in shape.  By mid-February, the onslaught ceases as the vast majority abandon the fitness machines in favor of their couches and computers.

There is a laundry list of other common resolutions, most of which are discarded as quickly as a used diaper in a Walmart parking lot.  People say they're going to go back to school, read a certain book, get a new job, quit smoking, etc.   But when it becomes apparent that accomplishing these goal requires some effort, the whole thing is forgotten or explained away by saying, "I didn't have the time" or something similar.

So, what's the point here really?  I'm all for self-improvement and everyone could use some.  I've spent the last 15 years of my life trying to improve myself.  But making an effort to improve one's self does not require waiting for the start of a new year.  You just start.  My theory is that people who make New Year's resolutions really aren't that interested in improving themselves, but they want people to think they are.  Waiting for New Year's allows people to procrastinate just a little more.  And when the effort is abandoned, they get to make jokes about another broken resolution.  Everyone nods and agrees, thus absolving the quitter of any guilt.

Now, I really don't care if a person resolves and fails to quit smoking or read War and Peace.  Those things don't affect me.  But when you've deluded yourself into thinking that you're actually going to stick to an exercise plan just because it's a new year, you interrupt my life and the lives of those that are fairly serious about staying in shape.   I know that a few of these people will actually stick to the exercise plan that they set for themselves and good for them.  But that number is so minuscule as to not cause a mass disruption at the gym.

Of course, I'm completely dismissing the symbolic power of the New Year.  Everyone feels that it is a chance for a new beginning, never mind the fact that you're still going to have all the same problems and worries on January 1st as you did on December 31st.   And as cynical as I am, even I'm not immune.  2010 has been kind of a stinker for me with a few notable exceptions (finishing grad school) and I'm eager to see it dead and buried.  But I still recognize that tomorrow is just another day.

My point is that if you're not happy with some aspect of your life, you don't have to wait for New Year's Eve to do something about it.  As soon as you realize that you're not satisfied with yourself, you should do something about it then.  If you find yourself saying that it will be your New Year's resolution, you're only kidding yourself.


Video Games as Educational Tools

I'm a gamer.  I have been since circa 1981 when I received an Atari 2600.  All throughout my childhood and to the present day, I'm frequently told that video games will "rot your brain."  Once upon a time, this may have been true.  Super Mario Bros., while requiring excellent hand-eye coordination, brought neither knowledge or wisdom.  It didn't even force me to face my fear of mushrooms.

However, as technology has progressed, video games have become more theatrical and intellectual.  Sure, you're not going to earn your Ph.D. based on all those hours spent playing Halo, but there are certain games out there that have the potential to spark interest in certain disciplines, such as history, literature, and philosophy.

I'm something of a history buff and lately I've been playing games from the Assassin's Creed series, which take place against the backdrop of real history.  The first game takes place in 1191 during the Third Crusade.  Many of the locations and characters are or were very real.  Playing the game sparked a fleeting interest in the Crusades, which some say still form the foundation for Western/Islamic relations.  However, the deep Middle Ages were simply too static to hold my attention.  Assassin's Creed II, on the other hand, takes place during the height of the Italian Renaissance, which is quite possibly the most dynamic period in human history.

Traveling the virtual world of 15th century Italy and taking an active, albeit fictitious role in the Machiavellian  politics of the day (Niccolo makes an appearance) made me want to research the period.  And the side quest of buying works of art of the day made me crack open an old textbook from an undergrad art history class.  I knew the time period was revolutionary, but I had no idea of the specifics until I played the game and did some reading.  This just goes to show that the method in which information is delivered is extremely important.

The first BioShock game exposed me to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.  In this game, the player explores an underwater city that was founded on the Randian principles of Objectivism.  But instead of supporting the tenets of this philosophy, the game seems to oppose them as utopia turned to dystopia before the player arrives.  Regardless, the game inspired me to read Atlas Shrugged.  I hated it, but I read it.

There is also a game called Dante's Inferno, which is based on the epic poem of the same name.  I have not played this game, but I first heard of it when I was reading the book.  Eventually, I'll play it to compare it to Dante's writing.

The whole point of this rambling diatribe is to illustrate that video games have become an excellent avenue to the humanities at a time when some are saying that they are under fire.  While there will always be those that are interested in history, philosophy, and literature, video games can serve to spark an interest in many that would not be exposed to these subjects otherwise.  Or maybe I'm just an awful geek that feels the need to have a deeper understanding of the video games I play.


Why I Miss the Cold War

Today, as I was sitting at my desk and devouring a TV dinner that I had turned into a sandwich, I noticed a tweet by Matt Tuttle (aka: Anthroprobably) that linked to this article.  The article in question discusses how funding for research often comes under attack when "Republicans control at least one house of Congress, as they are about to do."  The article also lists a few instances when the politicians attacking certain research projects have been humorously mistaken.  My favorite example is when Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) attacked the NSF for allocating funds for research into ATMs.  He thought ATM stood for "automated teller machine" when it actually stood for "asynchronous transfer mode," a telecommunications innovation that is way over my IQ.  Needless to say, some of these politicians don't do their research.

This periodic cycle of trying to cut funding to the sciences makes me lament the fall of the Soviet Union.  Sure, living in a world that could be wiped out by nuclear holocaust was a little stressful (at least I think it was - I was a wee child in the early 80s), but the arms race spurred by the Cold War extended to far more than weaponry.  Our need to best the Soviets at every turn led to huge research budgets, some of which took us to the moon.  During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, education in science and math was at an all time high.  The pressure exerted by the Soviet Union caused us to become a scientific and cultural power as well as a military one.

The vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union has removed a large impetus for us to excel in these fields.  As we have grown smug and self-satisfied at our apparent Cold War victory, we have let ourselves backslide into what appears to be the dawning of a new Dark Age.  Not only have science and math education suffered in the intervening decades, so have the humanities.  Emerging nations like India and China seem to be on the verge of surpassing us in scientific and technological sectors.  Some believe they already have

When the hammer and sickle were looming over us, we responded with an unprecedented effort to become the world leader in science, technology, athletics, and every other conceivable aspect of humanity.  Will we respond in a similar fashion when China really gets the ball rolling?  I guess someone should remind these politicians that it is easier to hold ground than to retake it.  It's too bad that we apparently need the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads to fulfill our potential.


When Child Labor is the Only Option

Today I was surfing the Internet at work instead of analyzing data or bowing to the ridiculous demands of our IRB when I happened across this article on The Huffington Post.  As I flipped through the slides, I noticed a not altogether unexpected trend: NONE of these goods are primarily produced in the United States.

This article took me back to those heady undergraduate days when I was learning that not every place in the world was like the United States (actually, I learned that in the navy, but still...).  An early challenge among undergraduate anthropology students is to understand how many factors influence life in a particular region and why not everyone in the world has the same opportunities that we have here.  Most of the things that we Americans tend to take for granted are all but unobtainable to kids in parts of countries like Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Lesotho, etc.  So, why is the U.S. Department of Labor applying it's definition of child labor to these countries?

Here in the U.S., it is understood that a child will attend school for roughly 12 years before either going on to college or entering the full-time working world.  In fact, it is a crime in the U.S. for a child not to either attend a school or be home-schooled by a parent or tutor.  But what about kids in places like rural Kenya or Burma where attending school may not be an option? When the nearest school is an hours-long trek and the children are needed to help support the family with labor, sometimes work is the only viable option.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it's just life.

I understand that the average person will read that article and say, "OMG! I am NEVER going to buy carpets, cocoa, coal, diamonds, garments, rice, cattle, coffee, bricks, tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, or gold until those poor children are free to go to school!"  And that's exactly what the good people at The Huffington Post want.  Stirring up people's emotions is good for readership.

Now, I'm not saying that all instances of child labor are acceptable.  In fact, the article also includes forced labor, which is something different and almost always reprehensible.  What I'm asking is for people to make an effort to understand the local socioeconomic landscape before jumping to any hasty conclusions.  Once the root causes are addressed, then we can complain about child labor.


No Science for Social Scientists

If you've read any anthropological blogs in the past couple of days, you're undoubtedly familiar with the American Anthropological Association's newly revised mission statement (a .pdf can be found here) that removes all reference to science.  To quote Krystal D'Costa, "The backlash has been immediate."  As so many science bloggers have thoroughly analyzed this (see here and here), I'm going to stick to what I do best - the unbridled rant.

I've never been a fan of the AAA.  Sure, I considered joining when I was an undergrad, but their insistence on ineffectual boycotts, their handling of the Human Terrain System, and they way they bully academic anthropologists into compliance with their hair-brained schemes ensured that I would never give the AAA a dime.  And I'm not the only one that feels this way.

According to a blog I can't find at the moment and therefore can't cite, membership for the AAA has dwindled in recent years and this latest move isn't expected to bring any more into the fold.  To me, this move to turn anthropologists from social scientists into social philosophers strikes me as yet another attempt to consolidate the powerbase of the AAA in the hands of one particular subset of anthropologists - the so-called "fluff-head" cultural anthropologists. 

This type of anthropologist is the antithesis of the physical anthropologist and the archaeologist.  While the latter types are strongly tied to the scientific methods, the fluff-heads analyze cultures in a method more akin to literary analysis.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for interpretive analysis.  There's even a picture of Clifford Geertz tacked up over my desk.  But we still need the scientific method to keep us grounded.  Without science, anthropological analysis runs the risk of being just as pointless and pretentious as an Ayn Rand novel

Also, turning away from empirical research and toward advocacy strikes me as hypocritical given that the AAA's code of ethics seems to be modeled after Star Trek's Prime Directive.  Advocacy seems an awful lot like applied anthropology to me, which the AAA has a history of being openly hostile toward.  Talk about a group that ignores its own past. 

I've often said that the rift between science and philosophy that has emerged in the past 300 years or so has been detrimental to both disciplines.  That's why I was drawn to anthropology - I, like Eric Wolf, believe it to be a beautiful blend of the sciences and the humanities.  However, the AAA seems to be on a clandestine mission to cleave this bond, thereby completely excluding the physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and more scientifically inclined cultural anthropologists.

I'm a medical anthropologist who works closely with physicians in a clinical setting.  As such, I have been forced to become heavily influenced by the scientific method.  The first half of my life may have been ruled by the humanities, but I am a scientist now.  My past and my present have made me a better anthropologist and a better person overall.  I can see sides of an issue that are often not apparent to many of my staunchly empirical colleagues and I can provide the hard data to back up my theories.  If the AAA has its way, I guess well-rounded anthropologists will become a thing of the past.


NaNoWriMo is Finished!

National Novel Writing Month, the reason I've been absent for the entire month of November, is finished.  And just like the last time I participated in this grueling experience, I'm both a winner and a loser.  Officially, I'm a winner in that I completed a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.  I'm a loser because I didn't finish my story, just like in 2007.  In fact, I stopped mid-sentence this year.  I entered my text into the word validation tool on the site and as soon as it told me that I have written 50,008 words, I sank into my seat in relief and closed the word file.  Maybe I'll finish it someday.  Probably not.

Anyway, now that it's done, I can get back to the business of blogging.  And thanks to those awful rat bastards at the American Anthropological Association, I have plenty to blog about.  Details to follow, good people.



I'm just making a post to let the two of you that read this blog know that I probably won't be posting much during November because I'm taking part in National Novel Writing Month.  For those of you that don't know, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.  The purpose is to get that elusive initial draft down.  The end result isn't supposed to be publishable or even readable.  Mine certainly won't be.

For those of you with the intestinal fortitude to take part, this is my author profile.  Add me as a writing buddy.


Obligatory Halloween Post

Traditionally, this is my favorite day of the year.  I have a strong love for the macabre.  Normally, I'd spend the evening traipsing from one haunted house to the next dressed as one of my favorite fictional characters.  However, it looks like it's not to be this year.  I get paid once a month, so by the time the 31st rolls around, I'm usually fairly destitute.  So, this Halloween has become a literary affair.  While others are out getting deliciously frightened or ogling girls in whorish costumes, I'll be on the couch reading "'Salem's Lot."

In the meantime, I leave you with this:

Happy Halloween!


New Appreciation for My Old City

I grew up in Dallas.  I hated Dallas when I was young.  I hated the people, the city, and the overall lack of any redeeming qualities.  After all, this was the home of J.R. Ewing and his rapacious relatives.  I'd always dreamed of leaving and in 1996, the US Navy made that dream a reality.  I ended up in Honolulu - a dream for most, but the high cost of living and the lack of roads out of the state made it something of a nightmare.

Fast-forward six years.  I came back, not to Dallas, but to the Dallas area for college.  In the northernmost reaches of the post-millennial suburban sprawl, I found myself surrounded by the same J.R. Ewing clones and the need for a personal exodus resurfaced.  By this time, I had a job with a major corporation and the only exit led to Oklahoma City.  The less said about OKC, the better...

Throwing caution to the wind, I left that job and landed back in Dallas to finish grad school and take a job at the Dallas VA hospital.  The city seemed to have greatly improved since I had last lived within the city limits, but I wasn't sure if the changes were legitimate or if Dallas was just more comfortable than OKC.  Regardless, the DART light rail meant that we wouldn't have to get a second car and we live within walking distance of what may be the largest used bookstore in this sector of the galaxy.  The changes seem to be real.

Today, inspired by the biannual media circus known as election year, I started looking up liberal and conservative cities.  I was shocked to find this report (WARNING: it's a .pdf), which lists Dallas as the 32nd most liberal city in the US and the most liberal city in the state.  Austin, a city that is often perceived as a bastion of southern liberalism, ranked a paltry 93.  Take that, smug Austin hipsters!  Further investigation into this discovery revealed this 2007 Time Magazine article.  This article actually discusses the transformation, saying that, "gays have played an important, less noticed role in Dallas' evolution." 

I knew the city had an active gay/lesbian scene, but I was surprised to learn how influential it has become.  The county even has an openly lesbian sheriff, but it doesn't stop there.  The city has recently revamped and expanded the Arts District with a $275 million Center for the Performing Arts.  While I don't give two squirts of piss for the performing arts, it is nice to have that sort of cultural touchstone in the city.  The article touts this and a few more architectural additions as reasons "why Dallas is more attractive to gays than, say, dowdy Austin."  This tells me that, while Austin may retain it's image of hippie-based liberalism, Dallas has adopted a more art house, black turtleneck-style of liberalism.  That's fine with me.  At least art house people tend to bathe.

So, it appears that Dallas has undergone a rather dramatic change since I fled the city in November of 1996.  And I have to admit, I'm very pleased with most of the changes.  Sure, we still have a lot of ignorant people who still think a large truck is the cure for a small penis, but at least the city is more tolerant and open-minded than it was in my childhood.


The War on Free Thought Continues

As I was lurking on Facebook today, I noticed that a member of my grad school cohort posted a link to a Yahoo! news article.  This article discusses how the Iranian government has restricted the teaching of certain social sciences and humanities in Iranian universities.  I wasn't able to find a complete list, but the targeted subjects include law, philosophy, management, psychology, political science, women's studies, and human rights.  According to Abolfazl Hassani, an official in what passes for education in Iran, these subjects were chosen because they are "not in harmony with religious fundamentals and they are based on Western schools of thought."  Huh...

So, let's speculate wildly about why these subjects were chosen.  Banning women's studies and human rights addresses some of Iran's social ills.  After all, you don't want any oppressed and subjugated people thinking that they're being oppressed and subjugated.  Political science because there's nothing scientific about Iranian politics (or ours, for that matter).  Philosophy because you don't want people thinking freely, especially not in a country with "laws" based on religion.  Law because you don't want people to accidentally discover a loophole that gives them a minor bit of legal freedom. Psychology because, well, fuck those whiny-assed oppressed people. And management because the Tehran Wal-Mart is running smoothly as is, thank you very much. 

And since when is philosophy strictly the domain of Western thinkers?  I'm guessing Iranian leaders haven't heard of Sun Tzu, Dōgen Zenji, or Siddhartha Gautama. No? Okay, let's go a bit more modern. What about D. T. Suzuki? No? Mr. Miyagi?  Nothing?  Wow.

I'm certain that this is backlash over the largely university student-led political protests of 2009.  I guess banning these subjects will help Iran keep up the appearance that everyone is happy and totally not gay.  Personally, I don't care what the Iranian government or clergy do to harm themselves or their nation in the long run.  Who I'm concerned for are the Iranian students who want to get an education and expose themselves to ideas that test their preconceived notions of life and the world.  Where are they to go?  I would say here, but this new wave of American conservatism would likely do everything in their power to prevent that.  Tough break, Iranian students.  There's always England!


Satisfaction is the Death of Desire

Forty-nine years after being formed as a team and 38 years after moving to Arlington, TX, the Texas Rangers are finally going to the World Series.  As a former die hard fan of the team, I'm happy and excited for them, but I'm also feeling a little betrayed.  Why couldn't they have done this ten years ago, when I actually gave a moderately large-sized shit?  It doesn't really matter because I highly doubt this will ever happen again.

Modern baseball, like so many other things, is a greed-based enterprise.  Free agency has closed the book on the glory days of the sport when hometown heroes like Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, or Harmon Killebrew were fixtures in their home ballparks.  These days, players and management alike are always jockeying for the next big thing.  Players endlessly seek more money and management looks for the best players to tempt with large salaries, which are passed on to the fans in the form of ticket prices and astronomical parking fees.  I'm looking at you, Ghost of George Steinbrenner.

So, even if this Rangers squad goes on to do the impossible and wins the World Series, the team will likely be parted out like an old Ford during the off season.  The greatness that has been achieved this year will be diffused all over the American and National leagues as people forget that a winning team is worth more than the sum of its parts.   In fact, winning the World Series makes the dissolution of the championship team even more likely.  Once the ultimate championship has been won, what's left to accomplish?


Famous People with Anthropology Degrees

Last night, I read a post by Yoshi, a dear family friend.  In this post, he commits the egregious error of asking if Giada De Laurentiis could "could tone down on the cleavage."  After admonishing him in a chat window and explaining that her cleavage is replenishing the ozone layer, I looked her up on Wikipedia.  As it turns out, she has a degree in social anthropology from UCLA, making her even more desirable.  This also got me thinking about who else out there has degrees in anthropology.

There's a few that I already knew about.  For instance, I knew that Kurt Vonnegut (my personal god) had an MA in anthropology from the University of Chicago and I knew that Jeff Corwin graduated with a BS in anthropology from Bridgewater State.  But if the Food Network pin-up has an anthropology degree, who else has/had one?

After an exhaustive Google search in excess of three minutes, I found this list. I had only heard of five of the fifteen people populating this list. However, I was shocked to see Billy Graham there.  Exactly how does one study anthropology and then go on to be one of the most prolific evangelical ministers in the world?  I had always been raised to see missionaries as our enemies - a continuation of the European colonialist agenda.  I feel like I did when I learned that Yamamoto Isoroku studied at Harvard.  I can only rationalize this by thinking that Graham didn't pay much attention in class.  At least Gary Snyder's presence on the list softens the blow somewhat.

The fabulous Hugh Laurie has a degree in archaeology and social anthropology.  Thandie Newton, an actress I'm not sure why I recognize, studied social anthropology at Downing College.  Ashley Judd supposedly minored in anthropology, which wouldn't normally be enough for me to include her.  However,  a former colleague once told me of a celebrity gossip rumor that Ms. Judd would pass out something called "mute stones" to certain people on set.  Apparently, if you were the recipient of one of these stones, Ashley was revoking your privilege to speak to her.  Well, Ashley, if ever you decided to hand me one of your little stones, it would promptly be set on a high-velocity collision course with the back of your head.  I'm just sayin'.


If You Don't Understand It, Ban It

No one is going to argue that smoking is a filthy habit.  However, this neo-fascism that has arisen among the ranks of non-smokers goes too far.  When I see commercials showing teens using Jackass-inspired tactics to encourage people to quit smoking, my first reaction is to reach for a cigarette.  However, I understand that continued smoking will make it harder for me to live the kind of life I want to live.  What to do?

Enter the electronic cigarette.  I'm not going to waste time and space explaining them here.  If you don't know what they are, Google them.  Anyway, the Mrs. and I have both been almost completely tobacco-free since we started using these things more than six months ago.  Her asthma attacks have been greatly reduced and we don't smell like my grandmother's dentures anymore.  Life is good, right?  Not so fast...

I came across this article today on WebMD.  As a scientist (or something resembling one), I was shocked at the lack of empirical evidence in this article.  The doctors quoted continually say things like, "We cannot say they are good or bad because we don't have any scientific proof," and, "There are no clinical studies of long-term use of these products."  However, despite this dearth of clinical data, the FDA seems to be seriously considering banning electronic cigarettes. 

Dr. Norman Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, asks, "What happens to someone who stops inhaling the tars of cigarettes and just inhales nicotine? We don't know."  And yet the article states that "the Nicotrol inhaler is an approved smoking cessation device."  Well, what's the difference, Dr. Edelman?  Is it because one is regulated and the other one is not?  Is it because the propylene glycol vapor is dangerous all of a sudden, forgetting the fact that it's been safely used in night clubs and theatrical productions for decades?  Hey, here's a crazy idea: why not regulate the electronic cigarette just like the nicotine inhaler?  Oh, you don't want to go through all the cost and trouble of those pesky clinical trials?  Fine, regulate it like tobacco.  Just keep those damned tobacco taxes off of the electronic smokes since they're not a tobacco product. 

Why is it that even our supposedly finest scientific minds are subject to the knee-jerk reaction of banning what they don't understand?  Isn't it the role of the scientist to study and to understand?  Maybe I'm missing something here.  I'm sure there a lobbyist at work somewhere in this tangled mess.


Let's Try This Again...

I've had blogs in the past, but like so many Americans, I'm too lazy to stick with it.  I've had this blog up for quite some time now, but I've been too lazy or too chicken to add anything to it.  Well, I'm going to give this another shot.  Please forgive the dull background and layout.  If I actually stick with this one, I might have my wife design something lovely again.  Historically I've been a colossal waste of her time and talent.