Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Weirdness: Baths, Cowboys, And School Boards Edition

When Mark Twain famously wrote, "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards," he must have been prophetically considering  the Annville-Cleona School Board in Pennsylvania.  Mary Ann Reilly analyzes the board's decision.
The board voted 8-0 to ban the picture book, The Dirty Cowboy. The book is a humorous story about a very dirty cowboy who takes his yearly bath, his faithful dog who guards his clothes, and the funny mishaps that happen when the cowboy emerges from his bath.
Perhaps one could make a case that the book was banned because it promoted bad hygiene.  Perhaps some liberal objected to the book because the dog, a noble human companion, is not being treated as an autonomous sentient being but rather is being objectified and treated as a slave who is forced to guard smelly clothes  Perhaps a cowboy objected--do they even have cowboys in Pennsylvania?--because it cast him and his fellow agricultural workers in a bad light.

Alas, the book was banned for less noble reasons:  Reilly continues,

So why, you might ask, would a school system condone the banning of a picture book about a cowboy who takes a bath after a year? The Rogue Librarian quoting the local paper explains:
According to Annville-Cleona Schools Superintendent Steven Houser, as reported in the Lebanon Daily News: “They [the parents] were asked what do you feel might be the result of viewing or reading this material, and their answer was, ‘Children may come to the conclusion that looking at nudity is OK, and therefore pornography is OK."
If a book about a bathing cowboy is going to turn kids into repeat porn consumers, the Annville-Cleona School Board had better shut down any high speed internet connections that it might have. Writing for Extremetech, Sebastian Anthony reports,
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a fast internet connection must be in want of some porn. 
While it’s difficult domain to penetrate — hard numbers are few and far between — we know for a fact that porn sites are some of the most trafficked parts of the internet. According to Google’s DoubleClick Ad Planner, which tracks users across the web with a cookie, dozens of adult destinations populate the top 500 websites. Xvideos, the largest porn site on the web with 4.4 billion page views per month, is three times the size of CNN or ESPN, and twice the size of Reddit. LiveJasmin isn’t much smaller. YouPorn, Tube8, and Pornhub — they’re all vast, vast sites that dwarf almost everything except the Googles and Facebooks of the internet.
Anthony analyzes the data and concludes,
[YouPorn] accounts for almost 2% of the internet’s total traffic. There are dozens of porn sites on the scale of YouPorn, and hundreds that are the size of ExtremeTech or your favorite news site. It’s probably not unrealistic to say that porn makes up 30% of the total data transferred across the internet.
While local politicians worry about bathing cowboys, those on the national level try to reduce funding for scientific research.  At The New York Review of Books, Steven Weinberg writes,
Physicists can point to technological spin-offs from high-energy physics, ranging from synchotron radiation to the World Wide Web. For promoting invention, big science in this sense is the technological equivalent of war, and it doesn’t kill anyone. But spin-offs can’t be promised in advance.
What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered—it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC [Superconducting Super Collider], I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”
What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents. Big laboratories bring jobs and money into their neighborhood, so they attract the active support of legislators from that state, and apathy or hostility from many other members of Congress. Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two. He wasn’t far wrong. We saw several members of Congress change their stand on the SSC after their states were eliminated as possible site.
If I'm keeping score correctly, reading about a cowboy's bad hygiene is harmful, but cutting research on science is good unless the cut affects one's congressional district or state is bad.  Weinberg provides an illustration of the results of such thinking taken out to its logical conclusion.
Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a member of the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I was impressed when she spoke eloquently about the need to spend money to improve higher education in Texas. What professor at a state university wouldn’t want to hear that? I naively asked what new source of revenue she would propose to tap. She answered, “Oh, no, I don’t want to raise taxes. We can take the money from health care.” This is not a position we should be in.
If it's true that people get the government they deserve, Americans must be doing something terribly wrong.

(HT Andrew Sullivan for link to Extemetech)

Blogger is being weird today.  I'll apologize for any formatting errors and will try to fix them later.

Update:  Apparently Blogger works better with Chrome than it does with Explorer.

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