Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

Lowering the drinking age

Recently, over 100 college and university presidents signed a statement calling for the legal drinking age in the United States to be lowered from 21 to 18.  Of course, each state can technically establish its own drinking age, but the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 penalizes any state which sets an age lower than 21 by depriving it of 10% of its federal highway money; the act is up for renewal in 2009 and the statement signers wish to ignite discussion of the issue in advance of debate on the act.

Most recent op-eds on the matter, like “Higher drinking age saves young people’s lives“, are opposed to lowering the legal drinking age on the grounds that there is good evidence that more people would die in alcohol-related traffic accidents if the age is modified downward.  The crux of the aforementioned article is this:

The lethal combination of inexperienced driving with inexperienced drinking has been well established. The over-representation of 18 to 23 year olds we currently see involved in alcohol-related crashes would shift to center on 18, meaning we’d see more 16 to 20 year olds in crashes involving alcohol.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the MLDA 21 laws have saved more than 25,000 lives since 1975, or approximately 1,000 lives per year. MLDA 21 laws are one of the most studied public health policies ever. The number of traffic fatalities involving underage drunk drivers has been cut in half since the early 1980s and the declines began immediately after the laws were implemented.

A recent Slate article, reports that “From 1977 to 2007, the percentage of 12th graders drinking at least monthly fell from 70 percent to 45 percent—almost immediately after the law was enacted, and lastingly. Fatal car crashes involving drunk young adults dipped 32 percent, resulting in 1,000 fewer lives lost per year.”  They also point out that after New Zealand lowered their drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999 fatal car crashes among young people increased significantly.  They link to a study whose findings are as follows:

Results. Among young men, the ratio of the alcohol-involved crash rate after the law change to the period before was 12% larger (95% confidence interval [CI]=1.00, 1.25) for 18- to 19-year-olds and 14% larger (95% CI=1.01, 1.30) for 15- to 17-year-olds, relative to 20- to 24-year-olds. Among young women, the equivalent ratios were 51% larger (95% CI=1.17, 1.94) for 18- to 19-year-olds and 24% larger (95% CI=0.96, 1.59) for 15- to 17-year-olds. A similar pattern was observed for hospitalized injuries.

Conclusions. Significantly more alcohol-involved crashes occurred among 15-to 19-year-olds than would have occurred had the purchase age not been reduced to 18 years. The effect size for 18- to 19-year-olds is remarkable given the legal exceptions to the pre-1999 law and its poor enforcement.

While one could make arguments that lowering the drinking age will lower alcohol-impaired driving, they are rarely backed with hard data; contrariwise, there appears to be a surfeit of data which indicate that more people will die if the drinking age is lowered.  Several of these articles point out that strong enforcement of the laws is not needed to realize significant benefits from them, though more enforcement would likely help. 

Slate points out that binge drinking on campus varies widely between states and even between schools within the same city.  Rates correlate with local drinking culture and the presence and enforcement of alcohol-related policies, by both law enforcement and college officials.

Palin’s qualifications

Having had almost a full day to cogitate upon Sarah Palin’s nomination and having read most of the biographical stuff about her that’s been put out in the past 24 hours, I can’t say I’m convinced that she’s qualified to be President of the United States. And that is a factor that one must take into account, since Veeps are, as the saying goes, just a heartbeat away. And John McCain, who just turned 72 yesterday, isn’t getting any younger.

As a Washington Post editorial put it today:

Not long ago, no less a Republican strategist than Karl Rove belittled Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as a potential running mate for Barack Obama, noting that picking him would appear “intensely political” because Mr. Kaine’s experience consisted of only three years as governor preceded by the mayoralty of Richmond, which Mr. Rove called “not a big town.”

Using Mr. Rove’s criteria, Ms. Palin would not fare well. Her executive experience consists of less than two years as governor of her sparsely populated state, plus six years as mayor of Wasilla (pop. 8,471). Absorbed in Alaska’s unique energy and natural resource issues, she has barely been heard from in the broader national debates over economic policy and health care. Above all, she has no record on foreign policy and national security — including terrorism, which Mr. McCain posits as the top challenge facing America and the world. Once the buzz over Ms. Palin’s nomination dies down, the hard questions about her will begin. The answers will reflect on her qualifications — and on Mr. McCain’s judgment as well.

There are, to say the least, significant questions about her ability to be president. McCain only met her once, at a National Governors Association meeting, before this past Wednesday and he offered her the spot on Thursday. This seems to make it unlikely that he has great personal insight into her aptitude and ability to grow into the #2 job. She seemed okay giving her 10-minute prepared remarks at the event where she was introduced, but not great. She’s got to do well in tough interviews and in the Vice Presidential debates to prove that she’s got the right stuff. Right now, I could imagine Biden as President, but I can’t imagine Palin in the job without serious concerns.

Slate has an interesting bit on a 21-year old college student who seems to have played a significant role in starting the Palin-for-veep hype with his blog, Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President.

Faster-than-light travel possible, maybe

Good news: it might be possible to travel faster-than-light! The bad news? Moving a cube that is just 10 meters on a side would take as much energy as would be gained if all of Jupiter’s mass (1.8986×10^27 kg) were converted into energy. That is a lot of energy and, as one scientist who is working on this idea put it, “We are still a very long ways off before we could create something to harness that type of energy.”

As I understand it, the theory, described in this news story, involves not moving an object through space, but manipulating space itself through the use of dark energy, which makes up about 74% of the universe’s mass-energy. This would involve similar processes as were at work in the early universe, just after the Big Bang, when space expanded faster than light, which, incidentally, moves 299,792,458 meters per second.

It’s Palin

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has announced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (pronounced PAY-lin, not PAH-lin) as his Vice Presidential nominee. Or, rather, presumptive nominee (it’ll become official next week). Here are a few quick facts about her, mostly culled from her rapidly-growing Wikipedia page, and some of my preliminary thoughts on her (presumptive) nomination.

Sarah Heath Palin, age 44, was elected governor of the 49th state in 2006; she narrowly lost a 2002 bid for the state’s Lt. Governorship. She was elected mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (2000 population: 5,470) in 1996 on an anti-corruption platform with promises of cutting property taxes 60%. She fulfilled on both promises, along with a pledge to cut the mayor’s (i.e. her) salary. She was re-elected mayor post in 1999. She had previously served two terms on the Wasilla City Council after having been active in education matters through the local PTA.

As governor, when rising oil and natural gas prices resulted in a huge budget surplus, she returned much of the money to Alaskans. She has good fiscal conservative bona fides–which should help McCain with another traditionally Republican constituency that has been suspicious of him. Like McCain, she has opposed pork barrel spending, including the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Also like McCain, she accepts the reality of global warming and appears, at first glance, pretty good on environmental issues. Like the guy at the top of the ticket, she supports expanded oil drilling as an intermediate help to U.S. energy challenges; though she supports drilling in ANWR, which McCain does not.

She is pro-life, which should help secure the loyalty of social conservatives to the McCain-Palin ticket. She is also against gay marriage, like McCain–and Barack Obama too (but the Democratic nominee is more supportive of civil unions and less supportive of state efforts to ban gay marriage). She complied with an Alaskan state Supreme Court order and signed an implementation of same-sex benefits into law under protest, stating that legal options to avoid doing so had run out. She vetoed , after consultation with the Attorney General, legislation that would have barred the state from granting benefits to the partners of gay state employees. In effect, her veto granted State of Alaska benefits to same-sex couples. Happily, she doesn’t appear to be an ideologue on social issues.

McCain obviously hopes that Palin will shore up his conservative support without alienating moderates while also helping him with female voters, especially Hillary supporters not totally committed to Obama. She is a fresh face who helps update the Republican brand and is a total Washington outsider, unlike Joe Biden, whose 36 years of Senate tenure undercut Obama’s message of “Change.” She is, obviously, untested on the national stage so we’ll have to see how she holds her own against Joe Biden, especially on foreign affairs (he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). We’ll also have to see how much substance, if any, she has at her core.  But, for now, I’m excited by the pick.

On the personal side, Palin eloped with her high school sweetheart, Todd Palin, in 1988. They have five children: their oldest son Track, enlisted in the United States Army and is scheduled for deployment to Iraq; then three daughters: Bristol, Willow, and Piper; their youngest son, Trig who has Down Syndrome and was born prematurely this past April. Sarah Palin was runner up in the Miss Alaska competition in 1984 and lead her high school basketball team to a state championship in 1982.

Todd Palin is a champion snow mobiler who has four times won the world’s longest snow mobile race, the Tesoro Iron Dog Championship. Even being thrown 70 feet from his vehicle and having to be hospitalized didn’t stop him from finishing 4th in 2008. So, the guy is pretty much made of awesome. If McCain and Palin win, what would that make Todd Palin? Second Gentleman? But there’d be no First Gentleman!

Maryland is richest state in the Union

According to a recently released U.S. Census Bureau report, Maryland is the wealthiest state in the Union with a median household income of $65,144; the Free State is followed by New Jersey ($64,470) and Connecticut ($63,422). Here are some other median household income figures from the 2006 American Community Survey:

National: $48,451
Maryland: $65,144

Top counties in the state:

1. Howard: $94,260
2. Montgomery: $87,624
3. Calvert: $84,891
4. Charles: $80,179
5. Anne Arundel: $79,160

But not everything is great in the 7th State.  The survey showed there were an average of 755,000  in Maryland without health insurance between 2004 and 2006 and almost 8 percent of the state’s residents lived below the poverty level in 2006.

11 million percent inflation

According to CNN International, in the African nation of Zimbabwe inflation has hit 11.2 million percent; it was “only” 2 million percent back in May. What’s worse, those are the stats released by the government, which has a big interest in minimizing the problem. Kingdom Bank, one of the country’s leading financial institutions estimates inflation at closer to 20 million percent and others estimate it is as much as 50 million percent (50,000,000%). A loaf of bread now costs 1.6 trillion ZWD, though by the time you read this, it will probably have gone up considerably.

Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Africa, exporting large amounts of food. But due to Robert Mugabe’s disastrous “land reform” projects–designed to enrich him and his cadre of crooks–the country is now more of a basket case. Does anyone think that the people of Zimbabwe would have re-elected this guy in a truly fair election? Of course not, that’s why he had to use even more vote rigging, voter intimidation, and outright violence to keep himself in power during the latest election back in March. Robert Mugabe is a very evil man.

Tweaking definition of planet

Well, the Solar System reforms of 2006, which I strongly supported, have not been as successful as I’d hoped. As many of you probably know, the International Astronomical Union then came up with the first formal definition of planet. The definition stated that a celestial object is a planet if and only if it:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
  3. has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

Furthermore, objects that met the first two criteria were termed “Dwarf Planets.” Pluto, Ceres (the largest inhabitant of the asteroid belt), and Eris were immediately classified as dwarf planets, and many other objects were candidates for the designation, once more was known about their sizes.

This resulted in there being eight planets in our Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; Pluto was “demoted.” It was this last item, Pluto no longer being a planet, that has caused most of the popular discontentment and news stories over the reforms. Personally, this doesn’t bother me any and I find the use of school children, who are told to write letters to astronomers and museums complaining about “Pluto being taken away” to be totally shameless.

However, I do now recognize legitimate problems with the 2006 definition, as much progress as it represented. It is somewhat confusing that “dwarf planets” are not planets, though it sounds like they should be a subset thereof. Beside the other technical ambiguities, the whole debate is also something of a distraction, and draws attention away from the important things.

For these reasons, I am glad that the Great Planet Debate is resuming, according to, my previous support for the present definition notwithstanding. I now support redefining as a planet any object that:

  1. is in orbit around a star and
  2. has sufficient mass so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape.

That would give us twelve planets. But, I would furthermore subdivide planets into major planets and minor planets, the former being those that have “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit and the later being those that haven’t. This would give us eight major planets–the current ones, or the old nine less Pluto–and several minor planets, including Ceres, Pluto, Makemake, and Eris–with more minor planets to come as we learn more about the thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt.

I think this definition would be clear, for both astronomers and laymen, and would be very useful, which, after all, is the sine qua non of a good definition. The only problem is that the term “minor planet” is already in use; it is virtually synonymous with asteroid. Those objects, which will not be planets or minor planets under my suggested definition, will need to be called planetoids, asteroids, or any of many other suitable terms.

Finally, the definition will need to be tweaked to exclude brown dwarfs and to address the issue of so-called rogue planets–round objects that have been ejected from any stellar system–and binary planets, which would include systems like Pluto-Charon where the barycenter (gravitational center) of the system lies above the surface of both objects. This would make Charon and Pluto binary (minor) planets.

I think these reforms could greatly aid discussions about the fascinating Solar System in which we find ourselves situated. Eight (major planets) is great and more (minor planets) are good too!

Women may be able to drive soon in Saudi Arabia

Good news: according to the Associated Press the Saudi ban on woman drivers may be eroding. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans all women from driving; those who cannot afford a Chauffeur must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, shopping, et cetera.

According to the article:

Supporters of ending the ban on female drivers point out that the prohibition exists neither in law nor in Islam. There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or edicts by senior clerics that are enforced by police. No major Islamic clerics outside the country call for such a ban.

Conservatives say women at the wheel create situations for sinful temptation. They argue that women drivers will be free to leave home alone, will unduly expose their eyes while driving and will interact with male strangers, such as traffic police and mechanics.

The article details some indications that the prohibition is losing support. It is typically enforced by the group with the most Orwellian name ever: the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (a.k.a. religious police).

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