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.