Poll: should the president have a six pack?

By now, I am sure everyone has seen the photographs of President Obama shirtless on the beach, sporting an abdominal six pack. It is my understanding that achieving this particular feat of human anatomy requires two things: being unusually thin and doing a lot of crunches.

Should the president be doing crunches? I can see a case for it. If nothing else, it must confer a certain level of humility for the most powerful man in the world to have to spend the time moulding the largely useless muscles in front of his intestines. At the same time, I cannot help but feel like he should be using his time more productively, working on pressing issues of domestic or foreign policy.

Perhaps he finds crunches to be similar to how I find cycling – a good bodily distraction that aids with thinking. If so, perhaps he is getting his attractive photo shoots without a productivity cost.

One other thing that occurred to me recently is that Democrats in the United States must find young voters a bit maddening. If their turnout rate wasn’t so abysmal, Democrats would win more elections. At the same time, U.S. laws and policies overall would be more aligned to the needs and preferences of young people. When young voters stay home on election day – at least in most areas – they are probably sabotaging both the Democrats and themselves.

Heading home

Tonight, I saw the Coen brothers film True Grit and found it quite interesting and enjoyable. Hailee Steinfeld is very entertaining to listen to, and her character reminds me of Lyra from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. That said, the film did leave me wondering why a young woman of such premature sophistication would maintain such a simplistic attitude about the desirability of revenge. Seeing Jeff Bridges play a hardened ranger was amusing, though also a bit hard to swallow after having been frequently exposed to him as a pot smoking bowler / detective.

Tomorrow, I will be taking a Greyhound up to the border, across to Montreal, and home to Ottawa.

[Update: 29 December 2010] I was amused by this text message, which I received from Fido upon crossing the border into the United States:

Fido welcomes you abroad! Our Travel Packs help you save http://fido.ca/m/usa (data fees apply) Regular roaming rates: $1.45/min, $0.75/txt, data up to $0.03/kB

First, I found it funny that they use the term ‘abroad’ to refer the the almost trivially routine transit across the 49th parallel. Second, I found it curious that their chosen form of ‘welcome’ to a new place is exorbitant roaming rates.

John Gamel on vision

For Christmas, I received The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens. So far, the most interesting among them has been “The Elegant Eyeball” by John Gamel, originally published in The Alaska Quarterly Review.

Despite being slightly astigmatic, I had never given much thought to eye health or ocular diseases. What was most startling and unsettling about Gamel’s account was the description of the pain associated with maladies like dry corneas or glaucoma. For some reason, I had assumed that eye illnesses simply involved the painless loss of sight, not the sort of agony he describes.

Ultimately, the essay is a reflection on the inevitability of deterioration and death in human bodies – the way time invariably takes away the most precious, necessary, and appreciated of human faculties. Gamel describes one patient – a professor of anthropology at Stanford – who responded to Gamel’s ultimate inability to stave off his macular degeneration with a mixture of realism and humility: “Why so sad, doctor? You look like you just lost your best friend. Who do you think you are – a magician, a god who turns old men into young men?”

Gamel does describe one area where there has been significant progress: in the use of intentional retinal scarification using lasers, to reduce the rate and seriousness of sight loss associated with diabetes. He describes how the treatment has helped hundreds of thousands of people to read and drive for years after diabetic retionopathy would otherwise have blinded them.

Such successful extensions aside, the resounding message of Gamel’s piece is that our own sense of the inevitability of our extending lives and vitality is an illusion. As such, we had best make full enjoyment of our vision while it remains acute.

Hamilton to Albany

The voyage from Hamilton, Ontario to Albany, New York is about 550km. At 3:30am, I caught a cab to the Hamilton GO train, in order to begin the journey.

Normally, the border is the most challenging part, crossing in a Greyhound bus. Either you get stuck in a substantial queue of other buses and need to wait hours to even get to the checkpoint or someone on your bus strikes a border agent as suspicious and they hold up the entire vehicle for hours. This time, however, the border went smoothly.

The trouble began in Buffalo. There, the bus driver decided to wait for the next Greyhound from Toronto to arrive, so that they could consolidate passengers and save some money. This meant sitting motionless in Buffalo for an hour beyond our scheduled departure time. As a result, I got to Syracuse 15 minutes too late to catch my connecting bus. The next bus, they told me, was at 5:00pm, arriving around 8:00pm.

In what I thought was an act of cleverness, I checked with the attached Amtrak station and found they they had a train leaving around 3:15pm. It was originally scheduled to be an 11:00am train, but they were confident it would actually arrive around three and arrive in Albany about two hours later. The train did arrive at about 3:40pm, and only sat around about twenty minutes before starting. Somehow, however, it managed to take about five hours to traverse the 250km to Albany. Part of the delay arose because the train had no heat and everybody was shivering in their outerwear. To correct that, they spent half an hour replacing one of the power cars. Nonetheless, the journey took about twice as long as advertised, even ignoring that delay.

As a consequence of all this, my uncle and cousin ended up waiting for me for hours in Albany, in order to drive me to Bennington. At the end of eighteen hours of continuous travel, I was particularly glad to see them and to have their help and company for the last stage of the voyage.

In the future, I will try to stick with the more straightforward Ottawa-Montreal-Albany route, rather than the seemingly more problematic Ottawa-Toronto-Albany route, with Hamilton thrown in as an enjoyable side-journey.

Today’s poor versus everyone tomorrow

In Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future, Tim Flannery raises the question of intergenerational ethics and poverty reduction. He does so with reference to the 90,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired electricity generation capacity India is planning to install by 2012 (compared with 478,000 MW installed in China between 2004 and 2010). Flannery writes:

It is futile to tell Indians that they should defer development of power plants until cleaner technologies are available, so that we can spare unborn generations climate change. Why, Indians ask, should they penalize people living today for future, uncertain gains, and do this to help solve a problem that is not of their creation?

I do think there are good answers to those questions. For everyone to refuse to act is to create a suicide pact. Further, what we now know about greenhouse gases obligates us to take action in a way that ignorant previous generations didn’t have applied to them.

Also, if we continue on the world’s present course of unbridled emissions, it will not be abstract future generations that see the first massive consequences. Children born today may live to see the great icesheets of Greenland and Antarctica disintegrating in their lifetimes, alongside enormous other changes that are more challenging to predict.

All that said, Henry Shue makes an excellent point about sustenance versus luxury emissions. Even in an emergency, you sell the jewelry before the blankets. As such, the heavy discretionary emissions of rich places like Canada (things like foreign trips, huge inefficient houses and cars, etc) would be cut before Indian development, in any kind of fair world.

Given the choice between a fairer world that produces disaster, however, and a less fair world that gets the job done, the latter still seems preferable.

Testing Google’s OCR

Previously, I briefly mentioned the optical character recognition (OCR) technology within Google Docs. I decided to test it in the relatively challenging circumstance of converting photographs of pages from a book into text:

As you can see, the image to text conversion isn’t perfect. Indeed, it doesn’t work terribly well in the conditions to which I subjected it. Substantial strings of text are missing, and there are many errors.

Probably, the system would work better if the pages had been perfectly flat and evenly illuminated, and if my camera had been perfectly parallel to the page.

Sovereign debt crises in the EU

I find all the economic anxiety in the European Union (EU) to be rather worrisome, from a long-term historical perspective. I think the last 500 years of history demonstrate pretty convincingly that the most benign possible way for European states to spend their time is arguing over agricultural subsidies and cheese standards. It’s definitely a lot more congenial than building tanks and smashing through Poland and Belgium over and over.

As such, I rather hope the EU is able to sort things out and set up systems that prevent these problems in the future. There definitely need to be ways in which the actions of less responsible governments can be prevented from requiring frequent bailouts from more responsible governments, but I don’t think the risk of that happening from time to time is so severe that it is worth derailing the whole European project over.

The wastrel child effect

Talking with Lauren the other day, it occurred to me that the strongest force redistributing wealth across human history has quite possibly not been progressive taxation of income or estate taxes. Rather, it may be the tendency of the children of the wealthy and powerful to be hopeless wastrels. One generation builds up a gigantic fortune and the next one (or two, or three) disperses it again with some combination of bad decisions and lavish living.

It seems plausible to say that really gigantic fortunes only build up when some new factor unbalances the existing economic system. For instance, companies realize that it will only be possible to train staff in the use of one computer operating system. In the process, Microsoft and Bill Gates make colossal fortunes. Similar explanations can be used when it comes to railroad barons, the current wealth of Gulf oil states, and so on.

The people who build up these fortunes probably always need a combination of talent and good luck. They need to have the giant fortune opportunity in the first place, and then they need to act effectively to realize it. The sort of people who are able to do that are probably pretty unusual, for the most part. By contrast, their offspring are more likely to be normal in traits like intelligence (regression to the mean). It is also entirely possible that they will live seriously distorted lives, as the result of parental success. This is as true of the heir to a major fortune or family business as it is to the heir to a particularly successful hereditary monarch. Once in a while, they may be able to build on the success of their predecessor. More often – I would wager – they either start or perpetuate the decline of that success.

All told, it is probably an extremely good thing that the children of people like Elizabeth I or Bill Gates don’t generally rise to the level of success of their parents. Given how limited most states are – when it comes to putting checks on income inequality – it seems plausible to me that a world with a high probability of hereditary success would probably be one ruled by powerful families reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The fact that there is at least the occasional mad or incompetent person who ends up in a position to squander the family’s wealth and influence is probably a significant reason why we don’t all live like peasants, ruled over by feudal lords.

If it hasn’t already been done, somebody should undertake a statistical analysis of the relative financial success of the children of highly wealthy individuals. It could cover as long a span as we have good records for (which would vary by country) and would help to establish the significance of this hypothesized wastrel effect. As I said, I would not personally be surprised if the total economic effect has been redistribution on a greater scale than that achieved by taxation.