Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shocking News: One Size Fits All Doesn't Work

This week's news brings up a study which has results that fall squarely in the "no duh!" territory: a study from the Thomas Fordham Institute shows that concentrating efforts on bringing the lowest achieving students up to par drags down the highest achievers. Not terribly surprising. Public education has never been about fostering excellence. It's always been about getting people to a minimum standard with no incentive to push beyond that.

Because there's not much incentive for going beyond what's required, public education largely becomes a system forcing homogeneity and universal mediocrity onto students who are naturally stratified in their talents. With the obsession with tracking everything with standardized tests and the arguably senseless "No Child Left Behind" measures implemented under G-Dub, public education has become a wasteland for student development. Not to say there aren't good schools, teachers, and students out there. Educational excellence still exists in the morass of the public school system, but I fear that it only exists as mini ecosystems where learning thrives. The ocean of mediocrity (and the ever increasing cesspools of incompetence) loom large and threaten to make all our students equally subpar.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The end is near

Ok, maybe not that end about which we hear various cults prophesizing. This is a case of an end which I'd welcome seeing. What I'm talking about is mostly about an end to the ridiculously inefficient suburban model that has been so prevalent in the U.S. post-WWII. Unless you've been living under a rock (not that there's anything inherently wrong with living under a rock if cheap rent is your thing), you're sure to have noticed that gas prices have made quite a jump gas price over the past few years. For the most part, suburbs are designed as sprawling, serpentine expanses of houses and roads which are meant to be navigated via car (and often large, status symbol SUVs at that). This model of having one's own [distant, faraway] castle was only viable so long as fuel was cheap.

The decision to become a nation dependent on cars to get everywhere and having homes distant from places of work was a short sighted decision in many ways. While we probably won't be switching to widespread New Urban development that quickly, I think we are seeing the initial winds of change. Long commutes are one thing, but also paying mega moolah for the privilege of that long commute from BFE is getting unbearable for more and more people. People are actually moving back to the cities in something of a suburban exodus. Moreover, the combination subprime fallout and changing attitudes about mixed use urban living are adding to the suburban decline.

While I'm glad to see that trends are probably shifting towards more smarter development and less suburban crapmansion development, things will change slowly. I just hope demand doesn't send housing prices for mixed use areas sky high so that I'll be forced to live in the suburbs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Notes on Traveling

So, I'm back in Philly after a 5 day sojourn to the land of sun, palm trees, beaches, and old people dressed in tacky outfits (i.e. Florida). It was a pretty uneventful trip, but that suits me just fine. I like not having stuff to do constantly. I did still do stuff in FL because I can't completely vegetate, but I was working on a much more open ended time table.

I did notice two mildly funny things during my travels. First, it always seems to be that the people least able to lift big heavy luggage are the most likely to have it. It could be that they're not any more common than the people capable of actually lifting and moving their heavy luggage. Certainly, they're the most visible though since they slow everyone else down while they're struggling with their luggage.

The other thing I noted was about my flight. My flight actually arrived in Philly roughly 20 minutes early, but we had to circle the airport for 20 or so minutes until we could land. The airlines seriously pad their schedules to allow for weather and other random delays. Why the heck is one of the delays just for landing the airplane? I understand how it could happen, but there's not reason a plane should be circling for 20 minutes before landing. It's a fault of the outdated air traffic control systems that we had to circle for so long.

Anyhow, now that I'm back in town, I need another 5 days to get myself back into a regular daily schedule. Just in time for me to leave for another trip.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chillin' in FL, and thoughts on sun worshipping

Well, I'm back in Florida for a few days visiting my parents. I do have to say that I've forgotten how hot and humid it is here. It wasn't so bad acclimating this time since we had that heat wave in Philly right before I left. Still, even with my powers of temperature resistance, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable when it's [slightly over] 80 degrees inside the house. If I didn't have a fan blowing on me, I'd probably be too lethargic to do anything.

It's been nice going to Spruce Creek park every morning. I can see why my parents go so often. It is a pleasantly peaceful view on the water for some morning stretching, qigong, and light exercise. If there is a breeze, it's even pleasant. Of course, there wasn't much breeze the first two days, so I had to re-adapt to the feeling of constantly sweating in the sticky warm Florida air.

On another note, I recently read an article about a dermatologist who didn't believe tanning and sun exposure were linked to melanoma. Of course, this is interesting news for someone from a land of tanned people. It's an opinion that's definitely not in line with the mainstream thinking. Just do a Google search for sun exposure and melanoma, and you'll get a ton of hits to sites saying that excessive sun exposure leads to melanoma. Unfortunately, I can't find the original article, but I'll summarize the arguments I've heard so far in my brief research:

Mainstream Thinking: Sun is Bad
  • High incidence of sunburn, particularly during adolescent years and for fair skinned folk, is linked to higher incidence of melanoma
  • UV rays cause skin aging and DNA damage
  • Use of tanning booths is also linked to melanoma
The Contrarian View: Sun Avoiders are Loonies
  • UV is necessary for vitamin D production
  • Some studies show that people from sunnier climes actually have lower incidence of melanoma
  • Melanoma more likely develops on the parts of the body that don't receive as much sun exposure (palms, soles of feet, and other parts where the sun don't shine)
  • The parts of the body with a lot of sun exposure typically develop benign basal and squamous cell skin cancers.
This is certainly not a complete or thoroughly researched comparison, but it's good enough this blog post's purposes.

So, what's the word on sunning and skin cancer? My guess is that the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. There are interested parties on both sides (cosmetic industry sellers of sunscreen vs. tanning salon operators for instance) skewing evidence and making one-sided arguments. Moderate sun exposure probably isn't as bad as the mainstream thinking goes. The UV from sun exposure does help you produce vitamin D, and there is some evidence that tanning helps prevent melanoma. On the other hand, fair skinned people (notably blondes and red heads) might need to worry more about getting less sun exposure than people that tan easily or have darker skin pigmentation. In addition, just because getting some sun is probably good for you, going overboard has the big disadvantage of aging your skin and running the risk of getting really uncomfortable sunburn.

I'm sure I get plenty of sun exposure just walking around outside during my everyday life. I think I'll just enjoy the shade as much as possible to stay cool and comfortable in the hot summer months.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tonight's Title Bout: Environment vs Jesus

I consider myself a rather eco-conscious person and moderately spiritual. I won't make any claims to being a great religious scholar (and not particularly Christian), but one thing that persistently baffles me is how a good number of Christian folk use their faith as their basis for not caring about (or worse, willfully despoiling) the environment. I don't mean to Christian bash since I do know many kind hearted, good Christians. But I unfortunately seem to have run into a few that apparently haven't truly examined the teachings of their faith.

I'll use a recent No Impact Man blog post as my launching point for discussion. The argument made by the religious Christian doubter of global climate change was:

"He [meaning God] promised never to send another flood--that polar ice will never melt and flood us again. His sovereignty will prevail--whether people believe in Him or not."
Ok, fair enough. If you believe that a divine flood will not be inflicted again, that's fine. But the Bible also states that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians VI). Maybe God won't be flooding us anytime soon, but that sure as heck isn't going to stop us from inflicting environmental catastrophe on ourselves. If we decide to pollute the Earth, we have to accept any potential consequences of our actions.

One thing that bothered me for a long time was that there was so much news about Christian doubters of global warming, and even a lot of fundamentalists outright denying any validity to the science. There are two issues going on here. One of them, the disconnect and lack of communication between science and religion, is a topic for another day. The other is what I think is a misguided skewing of Christian teaching to defend an unsustainable lifestyle. I've heard arguments using the Bible to defend driving SUVs and pillaging the Earth. I'm not entirely sure how Christian ideas got twisted into a defense of ecologically and socially unconscionable actions. I think the argument for SUVs was something along the lines of it being a Christian duty to protect one's family. All I have to say to that is "what would Jesus drive"? I'm sure He wouldn't be driving around gas guzzling, environment polluting, overly large status symbol vehicles that endanger other drivers.

The most egregious thing I ever heard was the use of the passage from Genesis about the Lord giving man dominion over the plants and animals of the world as a justification for being able to despoil the environment at will. That seems terribly un-Christian to me since my [admittedly limited] understanding was that passage was meant to be more of a statement of being stewards of Earth rather than pillagers. It baffled me for the longest time how there could be devout Christians who were so incredibly anti-environment. Fortunately, there seems to be some pushback to sanity since environmental Christian groups have been arising.

As a final note, I'll bring up the Christian ideal of loving one's neighbor. Protecting the environment is just another way of loving one's neighbor. Polluting the environment has multitudes of interconnected and downstream effects which affect people. Air pollution results in acid rain (often distant from the site of pollution) and respiratory problems. Dumping waste into the waterways just isn't a good idea as it makes an essential resource less usable for large numbers of people. The sheer amount of electronic junk we carelessly dispose of often contains toxic substances which either leach into the environment or get shipped overseas where they poison people scavenging the waste. The list of environmental and social ills is pretty long. Being good stewards of the land comes with the added benefit of caring for your fellow men (and women). If you ask me, Jesus would have embraced the environmental cause with open arms.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Recovery Myth(busting)?

So, I read this article in the NY Times about the myth of consuming recovery nutrition products post-workout to speed up muscle recovery and boost physical performance. Could it be that I've been downing calories immediately post-workout for no good reason? Well, I guess yes and no.

The primary tidbits of new information that I got out of the article was that there's no magical 4:1 carb to protein ratio for post-workout calories and there's no magical time window to get those carbs ingested for maximal effect. Honestly, I never even knew that "magical" ratio existed. I just know that I'm friggin' famished after a hard workout. I just want to get down any calories after an intense exercise session. If I wait too long to eat, I get grumpy, tired, and often get a mild headache. Maybe getting those post-workout carbs don't improve my glycogen replenishment, but they sure as heck affect how I feel. Being low blood sugar for too long post-workout tends to really suck for me.

The article does make some statements about protein intake, which more or less fall in line with what I've read elsewhere. But the tone of article makes it seem like getting amino acids into the bloodstream soon after a workout doesn't have much effect:
"Although studies by Dr. Jeukendrup and several others have shown that consuming protein after exercise speeds up muscle protein synthesis, no one has shown that that translates into improved performance. The reason, Dr. Jeukendrup said, is that effects on performance, if they occur, won’t happen immediately. They can take 6 to 10 weeks of training. That makes it very hard to design and carry out studies to see if athletes really do improve if they consume protein after they exercise."
Well, all I have to say is: no duh! Most people aren't going to see noticeable improvements in the short term. It'll take several weeks (even months) for anyone to improve performance, unless they're a complete beginner having never done any exercise whatsoever before.

Then there's also the fact that the article seemed to very skewed towards running, which I guess is fair since it was discussing recovery nutrition in terms of athletic performance. Most athletes are after all required to run fast. I think I'll be sticking to the strength and body building nuggets of wisdom from T-Nation though. I'm more concerned with my total body strength than my running speed. I figure guys obsessed with physique and strength know a thing or two about protein consumption and building muscle. So, unless I read a more convincing article saying otherwise, I'm going to assume that getting my post-workout protein shake is still helping me more efficiently pack some more muscle on to my (admittedly lean) frame.