Yearly Archives: 2007

Boone, Blowing Rock, Valle Crucis


Spring is a good time to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains; accommodation’s cheap, the streets are empty of tourists, and although the trees are mostly bare the temperature is just right for hiking. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Homestead Inn and the chocolate and ice cream in Blowing Rock (but avoid the corned beef hash at Knight’s), sipping a glass-bottle Coke on the Mast General Store’s porch swing in Valle Crucis, cruising round the backroad hollars (yes, that is the actual term used on the road signs) spotting crumbling barns and Jesus billboards, and a barbecue dinner at Stamey’s in Greensboro on the way back.

Motherhood Handwaving

In the New York Times Magazine on March 4, Sharon Lerner argued that “making it easier for women to work may be the best way to increase birthrates.” Certainly most European countries think so; all have some form of paid maternity leave, and many are trying to increase it. Lerner goes on to note a paradox, though:

“Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea than the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece have among the lowest fertility rates in Western Europe. Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like Finland, Norway and Denmark, have among the highest birthrates.”

That is curious, isn’t it? Stereotypically, Catholics breed like rabbits, while the ultra-modern Scandinavians are the ones who forget to have children. I was so intrigued that I decided to check. I pulled the relevant data from Wikipedia (specifically, birthrates, paid maternity leave, and prevalence of Catholicism) and ran some quick stats.

euromaternity.gif Surprisingly, there’s no statistically-significant relationship between the amount of maternity leave a country offers and its birthrate. The highest birthrates on the graph, by the way, are in Ireland, Iceland, and Cyprus. The lowest is Germany’s. As you can see, Spain and Greece are not especially low; in fact, they’re about average for Europe, as is Sweden, which offers by far the most generous parental leave. And contrary to Lerner’s claim, Portugal actually has a higher birthrate than Finland.

These statistics aren’t occult knowledge. It took me two minutes with Google and Wikipedia to find the numbers, and not much longer to type them into Excel and make some graphs. Don’t magazines employ fact checkers anymore?

eurocatholicism.gif I couldn’t think of an simple stat that measures a country’s sexism (sorry, I mean “traditional attitude towards women”), but the amount of Catholicism in a given population is a matter of record. There’s another surprising result if you plot popery against birthrate. It looks like both Lerner and the stereotype are wrong–Catholics are having neither more nor fewer babies than anyone else. (If anyone can think of how to test the sexism hypothesis, let me know. Better still, do the analysis yourself, post the graph, and send me the link.)

Why this disparity between the article’s claims and the data? I’m not a demographic theorist, and I’m completely ignorant of the extensive literature on birthrates. But if one wanted to claim that maternity leave raises fertility, the first problem to overcome, surely, is that the numbers don’t back you up. One possible response would be lots of handwaving to convince readers that it only seems like you’re wrong; in this case, mysterious hidden factors just happen to precisely counteract the positive effects of maternity leave.

It doesn’t help, though, that the quote above contains some basic factual errors, as well as a couple of weasel phrases (“among the lowest…in Western Europe”). Neither inspire confidence. Of course, they also raise the suspicion that the researchers’ conclusions have been decided in advance, and the numbers are being cherry-picked (which is the other way to deal with unhelpful data). Which strategy is being employed here? I don’t know. But it’s wonderful that we can fact-check on a Sunday morning from the comfort of our living rooms.

Good Stuff

overclocked.gifThe wittiest and most sophisticated movie I’ve seen in ages, Trouble in Paradise (1932, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), starring the beautiful Kay Francis, in a splendid Criterion reissue with great DVD extras • Cory Doctorow’s new short story collection Overclocked as well as hearing him speak at Duke on privacy and a fizzing mass of other 21st-century things • Julie Taymor’s film Titus, containing some slightly silly touches (like legionaries on wolf-headed motorcycles) but redeeming Anthony Hopkins a little in my eyes–although the man has no scruples about his career, does he? • Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology blog • The extremely French song Le Vent Nous Portera, both in its original Noir Désir and Manu victoriavox.jpgChao version, and Victoria Vox’s ukulele cover from her new CD–I only wish I’d asked to hear it live when she played at the Open Eye in Carrboro • Remembering what really good science journalism can be by reading the Best American Science Writing 2006, edited by Atul Gawande • Baking thin baguettes in a three-loaf pan, because three is the Platonic ideal number of baguettes • I for one welcome our new Mexican movie mafia overlords if they keep bringing us Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men • The chowpatty chaat at Cool Breeze in Cary.

Science Blogging Conference

anton_zuiker.jpgBlogs, as we all know, are about what you had for breakfast, or the cuteness of your cat. But science blogs are something different, claimed Bora Zivkovic, who along with Anton Zuiker organized the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, held at UNC Chapel Hill on January 20th. Most of the day was devoted to thrashing out just how different.

Everyone broadly agreed that science blogs allow experts to write about what they know best. In her excellent talk Janet Stemwedel listed some possibilities: scientists can post about their latest cool findings, translate a recently-published article into something understandable, unpack media coverage of their field and correct misconceptions, recommend books, share work in progress (an audible intake of breath here, as all the scientists in the room imagined someone stealing their precious ideas), and just write about what being a scientist involves and what they do all day. NCSBClogo175.png (Most of the latter, interestingly, seem to be anonymous blogs written by women in science lamenting their lot.) Science blogs in general share a voice of authority that most blogs lack, as long as scientists remember to stick to stuff they actually know about–this is probably easier in a blog posting than in front of a TV crew.

So science blogs are all well and good, but what do scientists get out of them, apart from the ego trip shared by all bloggers from seeing their very own words on the actual internet? Stemwedel pointed out that, unlike publication, blogging is a conversation; you can get feedback quickly, and the exchange is archived for all to see, so it can be a great forum to test ideas and see whether you’re making yourself understood. And it builds those valuable communication skills, which everyone going into science needs, whether they believe it or not. As Hunt Willard joked in his talk, “People go into science because they don’t like speaking plain English to normal people.” But most funding agencies want to see evidence of “outreach activities,” and blogs allow scientists to broaden their audience, even to the classroom.

adnaan_wasey.jpg To help with this, Adnaan Wasey from PBS’s The Online NewsHour ran a session on teaching science with blogs, where the goodwill of eager scientists wanting to know what they could do to help teachers ran smack into the brick wall of the US education system. Blogs are all very well, said the middle-school teachers in the audience, but we need lesson plans. And those lesson plans have to contain a section on North Carolina Curriculum Alignment (a section as long as the actual teaching material, it seems) setting out which part of the state science standards they conform to, because the students have to be prepped for the next standardized test. This was probably the most depressing moment of the whole day.

The conversation was derailed at this point by a gray-haired, somewhat smug gentleman in the audience who pooh-poohed the use of blogs in the classroom, because they weren’t “accurate”. (As opposed to, say, an out-of-date middle-school textbook? Or a teacher without an undergraduate degree in science? Both all too common, I suspect.) The gray-haired gentleman observed that there was no quality control for websites, and suggested a group of experts should give their stamp of approval to blogs deemed sufficiently accurate. I wonder who he had in mind? In fact, all the speakers agreed that blogging makes it easier for actual scientists to write directly for a popular audience than ever before; the problem is figuring out who on the internet is an actual scientist. Cue the interminable “information literacy” debate, and the accompanying wailing and gnashing of teeth.

janet_stemwedel.jpg So science blogging seems to open up a myriad of possibilities, or, as Stemwedel put it, “Ponies for everyone.” But there are at least three reasons why blogging could be bad for scientists. It takes time, of course, time that your peers are probably using to write papers; but then again, science always rewards those boring people who never leave the lab and have no lives, and who wants to be them? Helping the public understand science is an activity all scientists agree is a Good Thing, but they tend to be rather suspicious of scientists that actually do it; it smacks of self-promotion and slick marketing. And blogs in particular have a bad smell, looking far less reputable on your résumé than that nice dull article in Scientific American.

Surely the biggest danger with blogging, though, is that you could turn into a blogger. There were just a few at the conference; large men with loud voices and excessive self-esteem. They liked to point out, using needlessly technical language, that things were more complicated than anyone but them appreciated, and treated all discussion as if it was a conversation between themselves and everyone else. This led to the sublime moment when one loudly interrupted a discussion on lesson plans solely to say, “I don’t feel comfortable conversing here because I’m not a teacher,” followed by everyone in the audience making an unspoken but pointed mental suggestion to the blogger. Happily, this was the closest to consensus the whole day came, which bodes well for the future of science blogs.


you_are_free.jpgThe Man Who Saved Britain: a Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder is uneven but full of hilarious insights into the tastelessness of pubescent male Bond fans (my brother and I both qualified); Winder shows how the evolution of Fleming’s fantasy world parallels the grimness of recent British history • You Are Free by Cat Power I enjoyed more than the soulful recent The Greatest • Children of Men for the cinematography, with amazing tracking shots, and the well-realized future Britain–the plot and acting are fine but not its strengths • I’d been wanting to read Epitaph for a Peach by David Masumoto for its elegiac portrayal of the decline of heirloom farming in California, but it’s a beautiful and hopeful book too • Straight Man by Richard Russo — a university novel with just enough absurdism • Finished The Wire (Season 3), which has to be the best show on TV; like CSI and that ilk, but for adults shop_around_corner.jpg• The Shop Around The Corner (1940, with Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart), a better Christmas movie than It’s A Wonderful Life • Noticing a new bulb coming up each day through the mulch of Fall’s leaves • This American Life, now available as a podcast, reminding those of us who got too infuriated by NPR’s hideous pledge drives why public radio matters • Making your own sausage rolls with home-made puff pastry (not the wildly overpriced stuff in Whole Foods) and good North Carolina pork • For too long I assumed Bright Eyes was just for shoe-gazing emo kids, but I’m pleased to have my mind changed when I finally listened to I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning–I’ll have to try more Conor Oberst, as long as he doesn’t cry too much during the songs • Getting the New York Times Sunday edition delivered.

A Pav for Oz Day

flickandpav.jpg As we all know, there is some dispute over whether New Zealand or Australia invented the pavlova. In the spirit of détente, we made one for Australia Day but topped it with kiwifruit.

Flick’s Pav (via Catherine’s Mum)

  • 4 egg whites
  • 8 Australian tablespoons caster sugar/superfine sugar (that’s 11 US or NZ tablespoons)
  • 1 T cornstarch/cornflour
  • 1 t white vinegar

Beat the egg whites to peaks, beat in sugar slowly and cornstarch until glossy, fold in vinegar, scrape into a round on parchment and bake 250°F for 45 minutes. Cool and top with whipped cream and kiwifruit. Yum.

My previous pavlovas had been crisp on the outside, but always somewhat collapsed under their shell. This one was softer and fluffier; there’s a good case to be made for both, but I wish Cook’s Illustrated would send in the cavalry and sort the pavlova out once and for all.

The Sudoku Song

Someone I know was trying to work on her sudoku, so I came up with a little song to cheer her on, until she threatened to throw something at me. Here it is (revealing just how much Japanese my 14-year-old self managed to absorb).

Kore-wa, watashi-wa, sudoku, sudoku
Kumamoto, Yatsushiro, sudoku-san
Hajimemashita Fujiyama moshi-moshi
Boku-wa, watashi-wa, sudoku-san

The trick is to sing like you’re an eight-year-old Japanese girl wearing a sailor suit in a TV commercial for dried shrimp.