Grim Meathook Present

I’ve been to the pharmacy twice in the last two days, once to leave off a prescription and once to pick one up. Both days the line has been at least 15 people long to pick up and about half that to drop off. This is maybe 3 times as long as usual.

The employees said “sorry, our hours are cut.” When I came in today I turned around and walked out because I didn’t have an hour free to wait. Fortunately I didn’t need the prescription right away.

If upper middle class people with good benefits in a resort town in Southern California are now waiting an hour to get their prescriptions, because the drugstore chain has cut hours way down, what’s it like right now in Wal-Mart land? My guess: not so great.

I’ve also noticed discounters like Target carrying less inventory and less variety. If I don’t get to Target before noon on a Saturday the chance of finding the lightbulb I need is halved.

Something went down at the bank in the same shopping center the other day and they have an armed security guard now. That’s new.

It’s not the end of the world, especially here. But if I can notice the quality of everyday life slipping here? It must be getting really special in poorer bits.

News update: Russians not so healthy

A Sickness of the Soul, from the Economist.


At less than 59, male life expectancy has collapsed in a way otherwise found only in sub-Saharan Africa. It is around five years lower than it was 40 years ago, and 13 years lower than that of Russian women—one of the biggest gaps in the world. Male life expectancy in Irkutsk (not the country’s lowest) is just 53.

There is an obvious culprit: booze, especially the Russian taste for strong spirits, sometimes not fit for human consumption and often moonshine. Heart disease and violence, the two biggest factors in the mortality surge, are strongly alcohol-related. Alcohol poisoning itself killed 36,000 Russians last year; in America, it kills a few hundred.

A spammer darkly

hotelsamurai pointed me to this Wired News story which has interesting implications.

These researchers have invented a scheme for finding interesting images. Computers aren’t so great at it yet, but humans are. In fact, we’re so good at it that we recognize important images before we consciously know it, and this recognition can be measured by EEG. In their setup, a human watches images go by, and the ones that register on the EEG as “of interest” are set aside to be looked at more carefully. In short, it’s brain-aided image triage.

Given the current sources of funding for research, the examples given are surveillance camera shots, and the T-word has to be mentioned. This makes the whole project stink of 21st century panopticon. But that’s not the important part.

Using a human as a coprocessor, literally as a brain rather than as a person, is new. I imagine it doesn’t matter too much which brain you use, aside from some that are very good or very bad at recognizing images. It’s also likely that this isn’t fun “work.” Just looking at rapidly changing images for a long time is tiring, and if you aren’t able to do anything else but sit in the chair and let your unconscious processes do something, the boredom would be awful. From my own experience doing EEG biofeedback, the side effects of directly EEG-linked activity can be very unpleasant and unpredictable. I doubt anyone knows yet what the effect would be of long-term work as a rent-a-brain.

A Philip K. Dick dystopia looms, in which “braining” is something the poor do, like plasma donation or prostitution. Maybe it fucks you up pretty bad, but the Wal-Mart hasn’t been hiring in a while and you need cash. Too bad about the week-long psychoses a person gets after doing the hookups for a couple of weeks of 12-hour days…

What happened to high school?

I graduated from high school in 1983. It was a pretty good high school, and I learned a lot there. This was partly because of the accidental presence of some unusually good teachers and partly because California schools were well-funded at the time.

Every day I dragged my ass out of bed and got to school for morning classes. With lunch and a couple breaks I did school stuff until 3something. This was an iron rule. Some kids with more money left campus during lunch to go to a restaurant or something, but most of us just didn’t leave campus at all. When there was a hole in the schedule in senior year, I got stuffed into “study hall”, where I read.

We had a lot to do. There was homework every day, and assigned reading and exercises from our textbooks, which we took home. There were frequent tests and projects. At the end of junior senior year, too, there were a few Advanced Placement tests. Since I was doing pretty well academically I took AP classes and passed I think three of these tests. I worked harder and learned more in my senior year in high school than I did in my first quarter at UCLA.

If you left campus, it was likely someone would notice and you’d get in trouble. We had a legendary vice principal, Jack “Bring ’em Back” King, who would drive down to the beach and haul surfer truants out of the water, stuff them in his Chevy, and put them , dripping and sullen, in class complete with wetsuits. School was pretty serious business.

There were the requisite number of hack teachers and administrators, some classes that were worse than useless, a fair amount of wastes of time, and the other things one expects from that level of education, but mostly a student went there all day, learned all day, and went home and did homework for a few hours daily.

My friends from around here who are 30 or younger went to a different kind of high school, and I’m not sure why.

First of all, attendance is optional now. The kids may be in class, or they may be at home, or on vacation with their parents, or doing some project or other, or just… not around. Kids can barely attend some class the whole semester and pass it. I see high school kids shopping at some mall at 11 am on a Tuesday. If their parents are going to Maui for a few days in February, they just pull the kids out and go. One high school here instituted a “ski week” because everyone disappeared that week every year anyway, and tried to tack the days on the end of the year. There was no decrease in days lost.

Since Proposition 13 (please see my screed here from a while back if you don’t know what that is), there’s been less and less money for education. Quite often there aren’t enough textbooks for the students, and more often than not there aren’t enough for students to take them home. I don’t understand how you do math homework in that situation. The non-sports extracurricular activities, especially music, are gone, so those are off campus. There seem to be less classes generally, so junior and seniors have these big gaps in their days, and no one locks them up in the study hall. It’s easier to take classes in college simultaneously (this is a good thing!), so many students go back and forth between two campuses. And finally the enforced extracurricular activities like D.A.R.E., required “community service”, kareer kounseling krap, and whatever latest Young Pioneers thing is they’re being forced to do takes hours out of the school day.

It doesnt seem like there’s that much homework, either. Kids cram for the AP tests (which give them higher than perfect GPAs, another bizarro new thing), but their own classes and homework they view with scorn.

From my outsider’s eye it looks like kids from 14-18 are just doing less school overall, and not doing so in any structured way. Some of this is good news. Study Hall was a horrible waste of time, and going to college classes instead of high school ones must be awesome if you’re academically interested.

With all the blather about how our children is not being educatated, though, it’s weird to see the kids spending less time in school total, less of that time being taught, less homework, less resources to actually learn (hello, books?), and less supervision of any kind.

And the teachers just suck. Horribly. This whole train of thought was started by a high-school age friend telling me that her English teacher borrowed her Spark Notes for Samuel Beckett because she didn’t know that stuff.