Friday, January 23, 2009

Melted Cheese on Chinese Food...

To understand the title, you've got to watch this.

It's funny... as Jon Stewart normally is. It's also the first time I have seen Jon Stewart apologetic about his biting satire (and I expect his cringing apologies were genuine). But that's not the main reason why I'm posting it here.

I want to be clear that I'm not posting it here because I think it is any reflection on Obama. I don't think it tells us anything one way or the other about our new president.

I post it here because it so fittingly encapsulates my opinion about political speechifying. It's why I hate the campaigns so much. It's why I didn't watch the inauguration. It's why I generally skip State of the Union addresses. It's all canned, processed, filtered, and generalized. No troublesome specifics or details of implementation ever get in the way. Where any specific action is mentioned, you can be sure that within a week it will have been modified, lessened, softened, or scrapped altogether. It's all a show, and a tediously predictable one.

In my office, one of my bosses canceled a meeting on the morning of the inauguration so he could focus on watching the event. Some people set up a TV in one of the conference rooms, and stood around watching. My other boss had the speech playing on his radio as he worked (he at least was getting something done). This was a major event to a great many people... and frankly, I still can't figure out why.

Was it because Obama is the first African-American President? I can see that that's historically significant, but it doesn't make the inauguration ceremony itself more gripping for me. (I can see how people who grew up in the midst of the fight for civil rights, whichever side they were on, would find much more symbolic significance in the event, but none of my coworkers fit that description.)

Was it because people expected to hear something new and different? If so, then they haven't been paying attention to the campaigns for the last year. Obama speaks a great deal about change (and in reading the transcript of his speech, he must have used that word 100 times!), but his actual policies aren't particularly novel. He'll spend money to help the economy, the same approach we've been taking now for over a year. He'll surge our troops into Afghanistan instead of Iraq, which may be a wise move, but isn't quite cataclysmic policy change. He supports civil unions for homosexuals, which is pretty much the middle-of-the-road position that everyone is taking these days. He will aggressively support abortion rights, which has been pretty much the position of every prominent Democratic politician as long as I can remember. Were people expecting to hear something new or different in his speech?

Or is it just that people enjoy hearing him give speeches? Is he that popular? That inspiring? Are his speeches that moving? I don't find them so, but that doesn't mean that others can't.

I'm not sure what it was, but I skipped the speech... and even as I skipped it, I could have told you almost exactly what was in it. And I could have told you that it would sound shockingly similar to every big political speech we've heard recently, from either side of the political aisle. And, it appears, I would have been right.

At least Jon Stewart provided me some nice humor out of the occasion. :)


Monday, January 12, 2009

More Demographic Trivia

I was reading an article the other day in which an self-titled "mother" of the Pill, Carl Djerassi, bemoaned the demographic crisis gripping Europe (and his home country of Austria in particular). One particular sentence stood out to me. Cardinal Schonborn of Austria said, commenting on Dr. Djerassi's statements, ""Somebody above suspicion like Carl Djerassi ... is saying that each family has to produce three children to maintain population levels, but we're far away from that," he said."

Now, my first reaction when reading a statement like that is bullshit. The average woman needs to have ~2.1 children (assuming typical infant mortality, etc.) for a population to achieve zero growth/decline in the long run. However, Mr. Schonborn didn't relate the population stability to the typical statistic. He referenced it to the the number of children within given families. That's really an entirely different statistic, with a whole host of subtle factors affecting it.

1) The marriage rate
2) The rate of illegitimate births
3) Sex ratios
on top of the usual factors
4) average age of first childbirth
5) mean pregnancy intervals
6) infant mortality
7) mortality rate of child bearing aged women
8) I'm sure there are more that I'm missing...

All of these factors mean that the average woman who ends up having children, needs to have even more than 2.1 in order for the population to remain stable. However, what is the number? Could it possibly reach even 2.5 (for which one might forgive Mr. Schonborn for rounding up to three)? Personally, I'm skeptical, but I suppose it's not outside the realm of possibility, especially in developed countries where more and more women choose not to have any kids whatsoever, leaving a large tail on the bell curve. Actually, come to think of it, it would probably be more like an F- distribution than a Gaussian distribution, but I digress.

If anybody knows what this number should be, I'd appreciate them passing it along. I couldn't find it, and I find the question intrigueing: how many children does the average woman who has any children need to have to maintain stable population levels.

Getting to the crux of Dr. Djerassi's concern, Austria has been below replacement level fertility since the early 1970's (Table A.15), and is currently experiencing a net reproduction rate of 0.66. That number astounds me. It basically means the potential (barring immigration) for a society to replenish its population falls by 1/3 in each generation. One third decrease in population per generation if the rate remains unchanged... Incredible. It basically spells the death-nell for the nanny state in Austria, barring some radical changes to birth or immigration rates. Luckily for Austria (and the US), it takes decades for fallen birthrates to trash the economy and have a significant effect on the ability of the government to provide benefits for the retired. Unfortunately, it's a much harder nut to crack. Once a significant proportion of the young realize that they can live the high life without kids, marketing companies get in there do their best to perpetuate/grow that lucrative market. It's tough to convince the next generation that what they really need to do is sacrifice and have more kids to pay for the retirement benefits of past generations that lived it up, when there are marketing companies working night and day to convey exactly the opposite message.


Update: This article says that nearly 20% of women aged 40-44 are childless in the US. I ran across another article that put the childless rate of all German women at 30% (40% for college grads). Given that our birthrate is light years ahead of Austria's, there might be something to Schonborn's statement. I found this article about Austria in particular, detailing the changing birthrate levels and distributions, but honestly, it's too detailed and I'm too tired to understand it.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Anti-Science Bias in the Media

I wish that I had written this.