Tampa in the News

I’ve found since I started teaching Sociology that being up-to-date on local news can be useful (though it is less useful at my new school where many of the students are from other cities). This leads me to read the local paper, which is often relatively quotidian – thefts, car accidents, political debates, etc. Occasionally, however, I hear about stuff in the national media happening in my local area. There are two big stories (from the last couple of days) that have made national news. First up, the Cuban under 21 men’s soccer team came to Tampa to play for an Olympic qualifier and 7 of the players and an assistant coach defected. This isn’t all that uncommon and there isn’t anything particularly special about Tampa in this case, but it is big news and a commentary on Cuba. The second story didn’t make national headlines in the major papers, but it was picked up by a tech website that has a particular beef with Scientology: Slashdot noted the recent denial by a local judge of an injunction against protests at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater (which makes up part of the big three cities here: Tampa, St. Pete, and Clearwater). Again, this probably isn’t a “Clearwater/St. Pete/Tampa” news item so much as a Scientology news item, but I am always interested in things happening locally. (Also, there are supposed to be big protests this weekend at the headquarters… If I had time I’d go watch.)

On an interesting side note, how many of you, my faithful readers, have ever heard of the Dvorak keyboard? I’d heard about it quite a few times and had only ever heard that it was far more efficient and ergonomic than the traditional QWERTY keyboard. In my never-ending attempt to make typing easier on my hands (since I spend a large portion of my days in front of computers), I started practicing on a Dvorak keyboard (you can change your settings on your computer to get it working), only to get frustrated, think things through a bit, and begin to wonder how much of a difference Dvorak could really make. Turns out, not much, if at all. The Dvorak keyboard is often used to illustrate the idea that vested interests can overcome practicality and pragmatism when it comes to the adoption of inventions (in fact, Jared Diamond mentions Dvorak in this sense in Guns, Germs, and Steel). Having heard only that side of the argument dozens of times, I started repeating it (sorry to anyone who heard that from me; I was wrong and am now admitting it). But the frustration of trying to adopt the Dvorak keyboard eventually led me to search out criticisms and I ended up finding the one linked above in an economics journal (I know, it’s an economics journal…). Turns out, most of the “research” indicating Dvorak is (1) faster and (2) more ergonomic was done by… Guess who? August Dvorak, the person who developed it, patented it, and profited from it. Impartial studies indicate minor speed benefits (maybe 2% to 5%) and no difference in ergonomics. Additionally, the time required to retrain an accomplished typist (I type about 110 wpm on QWERTY) won’t ever be recouped in faster typing times – you’re better off spending more time training yourself on the QWERTY as you can actually get faster with additional training. So, if you’ve ever considered switching to Dvorak after already becoming proficient with QWERTY, don’t bother. If, however, you really think the 2%-5% speed advantage is worth it, I guess you could train your kids using Dvorak (though they’ll have a hell of time moving from keyboard to keyboard and changing settings on computers). One final note, I did buy a couple ergonomic keyboards (where the keys are split) and have noticed a substantial improvement in the pain I experience as a result of typing – the angles make a lot of sense and I highly recommend ergonomic keyboards.

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Now playing: Dave Matthews Band – Some Devil
via FoxyTunes

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vegetarianism and the environment?

Here’s an interesting news item I rediscovered in the NYtimes today: raising animals for meat releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than does the entire travel industry combined. This is based on research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I’m sure some of my regular readers will take issue with this, but it is kind of intriguing. Add to that the growing evidence that vegetarianism is a pretty healthy diet (possibly not the healthiest – a small amount of meat may actually be slightly healthier; see references below) and the connection to IQ (though not causal) and things are looking up for vegetarianism. Maybe this is just confirmation bias, as we all have a tendency to look for evidence to support the things we believe/want to believe. But some of this is also pretty good science. Anyway, here are the references:

  • Cho, Eunyoung, Wendy Y. Chen, David J. Hunter, Meir J. Stampfer, Graham A. Colditz, Susan E. Hankinson, et al. 2006. “Red Meat Intake and Risk of Breast Cancer Among Premenopausal Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine 166(20).
  • Gale, Catharine R, Ian J Deary, Ingrid Schoon, and G David Batty. 2007. “IQ in childhood and vegetarianism in adulthood: 1970 British cohort study.” BMJ 334(7587):245.
  • Spencer, E.A., P.N. Appleby, G.K. Davey, and T.J. Key. 2003. “Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.” International Journal for Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders 27(6):728-34.
  • Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cees de Haan, et al. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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move update and ANTS!

Debi finally wrapped things up at her job in Cincinnati and is now down here with me. She had a bit more than half of our stuff still with her in Cincinnati. It is scheduled to arrive today. Once that gets here, our move will be pretty much complete. We’re trying to adjust to life in Florida, but it’s not easy. I think our move to Cincinnati from Salt Lake was easier, as the climate was more similar. Florida is, well, Florida. This is a tropical climate and the forecast and weather reflect that. Yesterday was the first day we didn’t have torrential downpours in about a week. I just checked the forecast and it actually looks like partly cloudy skies for the next few days, which is shocking consider what the forecast is usually like down here – 40% to 60% chance of thunderstorms every day, from June through October. It rained a lot more in Ohio than Utah (my desert home land), but Ohio is like a drop in the bucket compared to Florida. And the heat… Well, it’s hot, very, very hot! But we’re adjusting. I hate to say it, but we’re already looking forward to the part of Florida that people find most appealing – mild winters 😉

Another treat of Florida – ANTS! I’ve never really had a problem with ants in any home I’ve ever lived in (we had a brief scare in Ohio, but it lasted all of about 2 days). Not so down here. Just after I moved in I started noticing these tiny, tiny bugs crawling around all over the place. I’m no entomologist, so I first thought they might be termites, which began to scare me. But once I called a pest control company and they sent someone out to check, I was “relieved” to find that they were “just ants.” The tiny ones were, in fact, pharaoh or ghost ants (the picture in the link is my own).

The “just ants” turned into a terrible foe pretty quickly. As we stocked up on food those tiny ants began their attack. They swarmed whatever was somewhat accessible in our cupboards. They first went after my vegetarian bullion, which was wrapped in foil and cardboard. They ate a lot of it before I noticed them, but it was too late – the bullion was a bust. Then they went for some of our cereal – they ate right through the plastic and were swarming in that cupboard going after an entire box of cereal. This all happened before I knew for sure what kind of ant they were, so I did what any uninformed, concerned home owner would do – I bought some Raid insect fogger and unleashed a wave of smoky insect death in the house. It killed thousands of them, but… That stuff basically is worthless in the end. All it kills is the ants you can see, not the queen and the nest.

Once I learned that, I started reading up on ants and how to get rid of them. Turns out, the only real solution, and this is what pest control people use too, is bait. I’d never even heard of ant bait (remember, I’d never dealt with this), but a quick primer on it and I was ready to attack. Basically, ant bait is either a gel or powder/granule that seems very appetizing to ants but actually contains a slow acting poison. The ants pick it up, take it back to their nest, and it gets spread around to the queen and larvae, which all end up dying, along with the workers. It’s the only way to kill ants for good, as killing workers doesn’t wipe out the nest and can even split nests, making your job harder.

A quick trip to Home Depot and I was prepared to wage all out war against these home invaders (or so I thought). I picked up several products, but it turns out products are only good for one or two kinds of ant. The one that worked the best against the pharaoh ants was Maxforce Ant Killer Bait Gel, which comes in a syringe. As soon as I squirted a little of that stuff in their path, they went to town on it and, well, started their slow march toward death. The only problem with the gel is that it dries out, resulting in a hardened resin-like substance after a few hours. One of the other baits I picked up was less attractive to the pharaoh ants, but was still successful and didn’t suffer from the same hardening problem. It is also gel-like, but comes in little plastic “hotels” that have some bait inside (it’s called Real-Kill ant bait). I bought a bunch of those, saw them do some minor damage, and decided I’d leave them out for the long term just in case the ants decide to come back.

I picked up one other bait at Home Depot that was supposed to be for ants outside, but it wasn’t very effective – Grant’s Kills Ants stakes. While dealing with the pharaoh ant infestation, I also noticed some other ants in the yard. We had a few building ant mounds and one kind of ant that was climbing up our exterior wall and entering our attic. I fought a pitched battle against the one entering the attic and seemed to have some success spraying them with regular pesticide and caulking their entry holes, but once I learned about ant bait, I realized I’d have to do more than that.

When the expert terminator came over, I asked him about those two types of ants as well. The mound builders are fire ants; the ones crawling into the house are carpenter ants. I tried the gel and my other baits on both of them, and neither seemed effective. The terminator recommended Advance carpenter ant bait and Extinguish Plus for the fire ants. I think my continual battle with the carpenter ants turned them away from the house, so I haven’t seen them and haven’t found their nest, so I haven’t been able to test the Advance bait.

The fire ants, on the other hand, once it was dry enough to apply the bait, I did, and they went to town on it. (That’s another important thing the expert mentioned – you don’t want to apply bait when it’s wet – it will just waste it. Apparently ants are discriminant in what they eat – they don’t like soggy bait (unless it’s a gel), so you have to put stuff out when it won’t get wet. Also, you don’t want to cover their hole with it, but put it around the outside. If you cover their hole, they think they are being attacked and will hide. Put it around the hole, they find it, scavenge it, and eat it.) The fire ants seemed to love the bait. I know they’ve eaten a bunch of it, but the question still remains – did it kill them. When I checked last night, they were still munching on it (and rounding it up), but were also still alive. I’m going to go check again this morning to see if I’m just feeding them or also poisoning them. Anyway, I think I’ve finally made some headway with these buggers.

And so begin our adventures in Florida…

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Now playing: Le Vent du Nord – Les Amants Du Saint-Laurent
via FoxyTunes

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my latest annoyance – deceptive move-in mailings

We bought a house; we’re happy. Start the deceptive junk mail.

Mortgage insurance providers are pretty smooth. They must have sent the first mailing within about 2 days of me closing on the home. It was, in fact, the first piece of mail I got. Deceptively, it looked as though it was from my mortgage company. They smartly include the name of my mortgage provider on the envelope (or through the window) to make it seem as though it is coming from my mortgage provider. Here’s an example:

mortgage insurance envelope

Once you open it up they continue the charade of making it seem like this might still be from my mortgage provider:

mortgage insurance letter

Of course it’s not from my mortgage provider and clearly this is lucrative enough for about 40 different companies from all over the US to send me the same damn mailing. If so, that must mean it’s absolutely not worth it! I’m just wondering how many more are going to come…

I’ve received a bunch of other crap, but this next one is the only other one that has really bothered me. They, too, use scare tactics to make it seem like I desperately need what they have to sell. Little do they know that I know that tap water quality is extremely highly monitored and regulated. In fact, with few exceptions, tap water is cleaner and safer than bottled water. Bastards:

water scare

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fuel additives

A family member recently sent me an email encouraging me to try a new fuel additive that claims to boost fuel economy. Because I care about this relative and care about the truth, I spent a few minutes checking out the claims of this company to see if it is really worth my time. Here’s what I wrote back:

I took your claims seriously and did a little sleuthing to see what I could find out about this fuel additive – Ultimate ME2. Here’s what I found:

  1. Ultimate ME2 is registered as a fuel additive with the EPA (see this website). However, all that means is that burning Ultimate ME2 does not release anything toxic in the air (at least, nothing more toxic than the gasoline it is replacing). That does not mean that the fuel additive actually improves fuel economy. (See here for the registration guidelines)
  2. As is typical with our government, they don’t test every new product that comes to market to ensure that what it claims is true. They do test these additives to make sure they aren’t polluting the environment but the EPA does not actually test them to see if they improve fuel economy. That isn’t really the EPA’s job. They do test fuel efficiency in cars, but not fuel efficiency of additives (see this website).
  3. The EPA says you have to rely on the independent testing a company does to verify their claims. Okay, I don’t think that is a very good approach given the propensity of companies to lie, but let’s check it out. I went to the website you mentioned to look into the claims of Ultimate ME2.
  4. The website itself reeks of a multi-level marketing scam. The biography of the company founder reads like a rags-to-riches dime store novella, not to mention he has so many initials behind his name that I’m led to believe they really do stand for B*llShit (or BS). The claims they make about their additive are highly suspicious.
  5. Add to that the fact that if a company really discovered a way to make fuel burn more efficiently every oil company in the world would be after their product (either to corner the market on it or to squelch it so they can keep up their profits). Given the amount of money, research, and time the big players invest in this area, do you really think a small organization like EYIwould have a leg up on the big guys? I doubt it.
  6. Finally, if their product is so amazing, why sell it using a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM)? Why not turn to retail or wholesale distribution?
  7. All of these things made me question the claims of the company. So I examined their “independent” testing data myself. I’m guessing they just made up the numbers to make this seem convincing, though I don’t know that for sure. Even if they did, they don’t know anything about statistics as the numbers don’t support their argument. Here’s the link to their “independent” test results. And here’s a link to the company they claim performed their tests (this is a really pathetic website – I wonder if they put it up themselves).
  8. If you look at the bottom of the .pdf file they actually have a table showing the results of their three tests. I took those results and threw them into my statistical analysis software. You see, they seem to indicate an improvement in fuel economy between the two cars, with the one using Ultimate ME2 having better fuel economy than the one that didn’t. The problem is, these results could be due to random chance fluctuations in driving conditions, that particular batch of gasoline, how the driver maneuvered the car, etc. So, I ran a simple t-test on the results and, not surprisingly, the difference between the control and experimental cars is not significantly different (mean difference=1.168, p< .586). There is a difference, yes, but three cases are not sufficient to claim what they are claiming. They would need to repeat this test with these same results probably 50 to 100 more times to convince me that the fuel additive actually works (I don’t have the time to actually do the power calculations).
  9. Additionally, I’m always a little skeptical about these claims because it doesn’t seem to me like they actually include the cost of the additive along with the extra amount of the additive in the fuel economy calculations. Let me explain. If you buy 10 gallons of gas at $2.85 and you get 35 miles/gallon (this is what my car gets), you are paying roughly $0.08 per mile.
  10. Now, add 1 pint of fuel additive. Let’s say it costs $3.50. To accurately calculate the new cost per mile you need to add the $3.50 to the $28.50 to get your new cost: $32.00. You also need to add the 1 pint of additive to the gallons of gas you purchased: 10.25 gallons. Now do the math. Buying and adding the fuel additive translates into $0.09 per mile. You’re paying a penny more per mile, which adds up on a long trip (1000 miles = $10.00). When you did your calculations, did you take this into consideration?
  11. Here’s where it gets really intriguing. In order to warrant using the additive, you would need to get a 13% improvement in fuel economy (that’s the difference between $0.08 and $0.09, 12.5% to be exact). In other words, if you use the additive, and it works, you are paying the exact same amount as if you did not use the additive. To actually save money, you’d need to improve fuel efficiency more than 13%.
  12. Ironically, Ultimate ME2 claims an improvement in efficiency of 13% – which means you’re paying the exact same amount as if you didn’t use it given its cost. I don’t know how much Ultimate ME2 costs per pint, but I just checked on a similar product at auto zone and it is actually $5.99 per pint. In that instance, it would need to improve your fuel economy by close to 20% just to pay for itself. You would need to do better than that to experience any savings.

So, what am I saying? There is no reason to believe any of the claims of EYI, the company that makes Ultimate ME2. They don’t explain how their product works and the little data they do provide (which is of questionable origin) doesn’t actually support their claims. Your better off buying the least expensive gas you can find and making sure you: (1) check your tire pressure, (2) have clean air filters, (3) change your oil regularly, (4) don’t drive fast, (5) and get as much weight out of your vehicle as possible. Fuel additives are a scam, pure and simple. Sorry, but they are.

Update 2008-07-12: Here’s a recent article from the St. Petersburg Times giving the same advice I have given here.

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tired of solicitations?

An excellent article in the NYTimes this morning provided a bunch of links and information on how to opt out of all sorts of solicitations:

  • to opt out of credit card offers
  • to opt out of junk mail
  • to opt out of telemarketing

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