Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Too Bad

Via SCOTUSBlog we learn that the SCOTUS has handed down a decision in Gonzales v. Oregon. Decided 6-3, no less, which is good news since it demonstrates that the court isn't completely crazy. I'm a little disappointed though, since the majority decision (via Dispatches From The Culture Wars) was decided fairly narrowly on a Federal vs. State power basis; I was hoping for something a little more sweeping. Even the dissenting opinion is fairly dry; I was hoping for some Scalia craziness, but its all "give the AG some leeway". Nevertheless, anytime the AG gets the finger these days it generally makes me happy

The Bloom Is Off The Rose

Update: Not a complete loss, as it turns out. So while I was out I went to a Barnes and Nobles for the express purpose of buying Hawaiian music. Being an aspirant to music snobbery I decided to get something non-traditional i.e. no grass skirts or ukuleles and ended up getting I Don't Mind by a local band called Beat Your Kids. I finally had a chance to listen to it; its not half bad, uptempo punkish/ska-ish, but what really sold me was it had a song called Bruce Lee Ska. How can you not like that?
So I find that I've rapidly tired of Honolulu. More specifically, I'm not sure why people choose to spend their vacations in Waikiki. There's just too many people, everything is way expensive, and (stop me if you've heard this one before) its unbearably touristy. I have to assume that people vacation here because they don't know any better. I know, if its so lame why am I there? Well, that's where the company sent me. So there, nyah! And part of this might just be that I'm jet-lagged and picky. Regardless, I found it necessary to try to escape all the touristy, and was only partially successful. The highlight of the day was finding this little Thai restaurant called Bale, which stands as a reminder that French colonialism wasn't all bad. They have a really good "special sandwich" which beats paying too much for bacon and eggs at the hotel. If you've never had a Thai sandwich, here's what they do. They take a demi-baguette, put some kind of meat on it (ham, pate, and head cheese in this case), and then top it with pickled veggies and cilantro. Muy bueno. But, as I said, that was the highlight of the day. So I did a circuit of the island, driving mostly at random, trying to find something interesting. Most of what is readily-identifiable from the road are shops and whatnot, and they all seem to sell the same thing: boxes of Macadamia nuts and bags of Kona coffee. Bleh... my worry is that I really did have an "authentic island experience". Now I know there's a really good arts scene and I shouldn't be complaining. But that's difficult to get into when you're only there for 3 days and confined to Oahu. Which might be part of the problem... to borrow a phrase: "Hawaii's a great place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there".

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Not So Keen On Rites Of Passage

I'm watching Taboo on the National Geographic channel, and they're talking about rites of passage. Which got me to thinking about the modern perception of these rites. I don't think I've ever heard anyone speak about them in a negative or critical fashion. Much the opposite, they seem to be lauded; you do hear people bemoaning the lack of rites of passage in modern American culture. I, for one, am skeptical about their value, which I imagine puts me in the minority. Life is a continuous process of becoming; anything which obscures this fact is of questionable value. The use of rites of passage encourages people to think in terms of labels and artificial divisions. Yesterday I was a boy, today I am a man, but little, if anything, has actually changed in the interim. Why not encourage people to think in terms of continuities instead? Instead of providing people with convenient labels to apply to themselves why not enable them to recognize their own uniqueness, the "I am I"? Its harder to think this way, but forcing people to be introspective is a good thing. I'm inclined to think that it pulls down the mental barriers that prevent people from recognizing the control they have over their own lives.

No No No Wrong Wrong Wrong

This is the kind of thing which just drives me nuts. Look folks, its good and noble to want to something about Walmart in relation to the healthcare burden it imposes on the community. But imposing a rule that 8% of its expenditures have to be on health care (or contributed to a state pool) isn't the way to fix things. Let's consider some of the problems, shall we?
  • Why 8%? I haven't been able to find any justification for this number; it looks like a complete asspull. I hate legislative ass-pulling, it's bound to lead to more stupidity down the road. Also, note that the other 3 companies affected by this legislation already pay more than that, so this number is probably too low anyway.
  • Will it work? Why should it? There seems to be an assumption that increasing the amount of money which a company spends on health care automatically translates into better health care for the population with which we are concerned. If accountants can hide billions of dollars in losses, what makes anyone think that they won't find a way to recategorize more expenses as "health care"?
And that's just the obvious problems from a pragmatic standpoint. From the standpoint of efficient law there's got to be a better way to do things. The root cause of the problem is that a lot of Walmart employees work part time for pitiful wages, making them eligible for public assistance. If you want these people to have healthcare, why not just pass a law that says these people have to have health care? Ohhh no, don't want to do that, you could come off sounding like some kind of wealth-redistributing Socialist pinko commie+. The whole driving idea here is that everyone should have healthcare. Otherwise we could just make a law that says "Walmart employees are ineligible for public assistance and Medicare and WIC and they're ugly too"*. What an idea, healthcare for everyone, where have I heard that before? Let's see... for everyone... for everyone as in universal... universal... of course, universal healthcare. Why not mandate universal healthcare? If we think that people really should have healthcare, why the fuck do we expect employers to foot the bill? And if someone mentions "the free market" I'm going to kick you in the nuts. Health insurance as it currently stands bears no relation to any sort of hypothetical ideal market. Plus, given the normative statement "everyone should have health care", we must acknowlege the moral dimension to this particular issue. Which means that when someone says "free market" in this case we get to kick them in the nuts. So, in closing, stop with the stoopid legislative bandages that aren't going to fix matters and address the root cause of the issue instead.
+ Yes, I know those labels are mutually incompatible. Allow me a little hyperbole, yes? * Again, hyperbole.

Further Evidence That Belinda Carlisle Might Be Right After All

So I woke up this morning at 5:30 or so, on account of the fact that I still think I'm in the Eastern time zone, and guess what? It wasn't butt-ass cold outside. It was, in fact, quite pleasant. Again, reminds me of mornings in SoCal, cool and kinda fresh-smelling. I'd get up earlier if all mornings were like this. First things first, breakfast. I needed to get away from the hotel; I don't think I could have handled another well-adjusted family on vacation sitting next to me. So I decided to find some place that could at least pass for "local" under casual scrutiny. I ended up, thanks to Mr. Breakfast, at Sam Choy's, which did appear to be patronized by locals, at least when I got there. Any of y'all thinking of going, you should go early. I was able to find parking pretty easily, but it was full up by about 7:45. Breakfast was something called a "pork moku". I figure that the guys who originally invented it had a conversation something like this: First Guy: I'm hungry, what's for breakfast? Second Guy: We got some rice. FG: That's good, but we need some meat too. SG: How 'bout we throw in a bunch of shredded pork? FG: Getting warmer. Now what can we put on it so that we can claim we ate our vegetables this morning? SG: Carmelized onions? FG: Nice, now you're thinking! The only problem is that this is a little bit on the dry side. SG: Why don't you pour a bunch of gravy over it? FG: Great idea. Now the only problem is selling it to the haole. SG: I know, let's top it with a fried egg. They like fried eggs on everything. FG: Bingo. God, that thing just sits in your stomach like I don't know what. But pretty good, all things considered. Tomorrow I will return and get the "catch of the day". Nothing beats starting out the morning with something that was swimming happily 4 hours ago. And wait, it gets better. Turns out that Sam Choy's is a brewery too. I picked up a growler of "Steamship Lager" which I'm enjoying as I write this. Good beer, balanced and not too heavy, nice (but not overwhelming) hoppiness. So I got back to my hotel room and holy fuck. I looked out my window and there's this huge ass rainbow: Nice. So anyway, I spent the better part of the day hoofing it around downtown Honolulu. Items of merit: Everyone is pissed off at the whole NSA spying thing. And I mean everyone. Yes, you can have a store devoted to nothing but kimchee. There's something you don't see every day. Anyway, I also had the chance to see the "King's Jubilee Celebration" this evening at the hotel, which is basically a pageant honoring the last king of Hawaii. The whole thing struck me as a little bit weird. There's this color guard which escorts an actor playing the king, and then an MC who does a little bit of biography on the king. The biography was kind of interesting in that it was strongly pro-native Hawaiian while at the same time being "we honor all the peoples all over" and stuff. Oh yeah, and they mentioned that the native Hawaiian population was decimated by diseases brought by mainlanders. And after that, the floor show, which was just so campy I couldn't really take it anymore.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Greetings From The "I'm Here And You're Not" State

Let me tell you why I like my job... they sent me to Hawaii. Oh yeah, I had like 2.5 hours worth of work to do while I'm here. But that's done already, and now I have 3 full days of tropical paradise to enjoy on the company's dime. Let me tell you why else I like my job. I'm sitting here on the balcony of my hotel room... yes, my room has a balcony and yes, I can see the Pacific. But more to the point I'm sitting on my balcony, smoking a cigar and drinking a 40. And not just any 40, a 40 of Mickeys. Do you know, I've lived in places where its illegal to sell 40s? Its been waaayyy too long since I've been able to kick back like this. Usually I've got some piece of work or another hanging over my head. But, right now, not a damn thing to worry about. Sure, my luggage hasn't arrived yet, but even that's not dampening my spirits. I love this place, it reminds me of SoCal minus the smog. People here are friendly and happy, or they're doing a good enough job pretending that it doesn't make a difference. I'm staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Damn, this place is huge. When I'm rich and famous I'm going to stay somewhere a little bit smaller, but at this point I think its a case of beggars not being choosers. I had their buffet for dinner since I wasn't in any mood to go exploring this evening. Ok food, but you're paying resort prices. Tomorrow I will go off the beaten path and find something a little more worthwhile. I hear they have good sushi around here somewhere... have I mentioned that my job rocks?

Intractable Problems in Progressive Morality

Here's another dilemma for you. One of my wife's co-workers is a practicing Muslim of some fairly conservative flavor who refuses to shake hands with women. It's oh so entertaining to watch my wife and her co-workers, most of who try to be good, liberal, progressive people, wrestle with their approach to this behavior. On one hand they recognize that they should be tolerant of other peoples' religious beliefs but, at the same time, they don't want to endorse behavior that they see as sexist. This is a culture clash in the literal sense. We have two cultures, both of which we want to treat with respect and tolerance, which happen to be incompatible on this small (but visible and highly symbolic) behavior. The first argument which one might make is that the refusal to shake hands isn't sexist, since its done out of religious motives which have nothing to do with the denigration of women. But I would argue that isn't germane, since there seems to be a standing agreement that perception is more important than intent in cases such as this. So again, how to deal with apparently irreconcilable differences in a progressive fashion? The pragmatic solution, looking at my wife and her co-workers, is to just get used to the behavior and let it go. They seem to have, at least publicly, just accepted the fact that this person will continue to exhibit questionable behavior towards women, will continuing to complain about the practice in private. Which, IMHO, is a crappy and indefensible solution which really smacks of hypocrisy. Compelling the fellow that he has to shake hands is right out of the question. I can't make a case that his refusal represents a violation of other peoples' natural/civil rights, so there's no grounds for him to be so compelled. The enlightened solution seems to be, at least in this case, for everyone to be educated about the motivations for the non-handshaking behavior. But this is sub-optimal as well, since the only people who are really available for this type of education are this fellow's co-workers; there are plenty of other women who come into contact casually with this gentleman and end up feeling slighted. Looking at this in conjunction with my previous post makes me realize that progressive moral reasoning is seriously untenable. There's some sort of a Goedelization going on; modern reasoning is so concerned with implication and meta-implication that it becomes difficult to avoid having the system speak against itself. How would you go about fixing this? The obvious idea, borrowed from Lord Whitehead, is to limit the interpretation of actions, symbols, etc. in some fashion. One would hope that by applying such a limitation you have a moral basis of reasoning which was, if not deterministic, then at least less fraught with contradiction. The only problem is that I have no idea how such a limitation would work, or if its even tenable. The first thought is that we need to stop looking for subtexts all the time and accept actions at their face value. However, subtext is undeniably important in many instances, so that's right out as well. How about it, boys and girls, how do you fix modern moral discourse so that it doesn't break so easily on the rocks of self-reference?

The Politics Of "Taking It Up The Ass"

So I've a gay fried who gets really upset when people use the phrase "take it up the ass" (and variants thereof) to indicate being subjected to something unpleasant. I'm relatively certain that he feels its demeaning to gay people; I don't recall him having an issue with the phrase prior to coming out. While trying to figure out if my friend was being reasonable I was impressed by the difficulty of actually evaluating the claim. There seem to be multiple good arguments both for and against, so how does one go about determining which one is right? Let's start by considering the common usage of the phrase. "Taking it up the ass", it would seem, is generally used to indicate that someone is being metaphorically violated, coerced, or forced to engage in something unpleasant. As commonly used this phrase really doesn't refer directly to gay people; reference seems to be indirect by association with sodomy. However, sodomy is practiced across orientations; arguing that the phrase "taking it up the ass" refers specifically to homosexual behavior denies this fact. It also runs afoul of progressive though for two reasons: 1) Homosexual practice is not limited to anal sex. Equating homosexuality with sodomy reinforces the stereotype of homosexuals as "buggerers". 2) Homosexuals do more than just have sex. Equating homosexuality with sodomy reinforces the stereotype that homosexuals are one-dimensional individuals interested only in sex. Both of the above seem to be strong "con" arguments. But the "pro" arguments seem to be strong as well. Sodomy has been used as a tool to humiliate and disempower individuals, especially men, from historic times up to the present. The central idea undergirding this usage seems to be that to be penetrated is to be feminized. So using the phrase "take it up the ass" to indicate coercion, violation, etc. reinforces the idea that men penetrate and women are penetrated. By extension this endorses the idea that gay men are effeminate. So there's the central dilemma then. Taking offense at the phrase helps combat the image of gay men as feminized. But at the same time it perpetuates a narrow view of gay men as being solely concerned with anal sex. So which is better, and which is worse?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Don't Hit Me

So I saw Cassanova with the wifey the other day. The exchange went something like this: Her: How about Munich? Me: No. Her: Ok, how about Syriana? Me: How about I stab myself in the eye? I read the news all day; I don't want to see a political piece this evening. How about Cassanova? Its a period dramedy... you love period dramedies. Her: Ok. The movie was pretty entertaining; who knew pork fat could be so funny? But I digress. We were subjected to the trailer for Mel Gibson's new flick, Apocalypto, in the bargin. I didn't know quite what to make of it; it was mostly just weird. But it made me think about this: "Apocalypso: When the end comes, everyone sing 'Daaaay-oh'". Yeah, crappy paste-up job; my Gimp skills are rusty, so sue me.

Looking Beyond Roe v. Wade

Update: Someone just ran a commercial about the his failure to recuse himself in a case involving Vanguard. Yeah, he probably should have recused himself, and he probably should have got his story straight afterwards. But I'm much less disturbed about one man's personal mendacity than I am in the fact that he said it was procedurally advisable for the police to shoot fleeing suspects in the back. C'mon, someone say "Judge Alito supports shooting first and asking questions later". Low hanging fruit here people...
I'm listening to CNN this morning, and all the hubbub about Alito's upcoming confirmation hearings seems to center around his opinions regarding abortion/R v. W. This is a tendency which I've noticed both in the traditional media and the not-so-traditional media. His views on this issue are questionable (possibly execrable), but I worry that R v. W/abortion is becoming a litmus test (if its not one already). Progressives need to remember that there are other issues beyond abortion; there's nothing that annoys me more than a one-issue voter (well, few things). These other issues have been covered in the press, granted, but not to the extent that I think they should be. For example, the whole strip search story deserves more popular play than its getting. Even worse than that, though, is Alito's response to the shooting of an unarmed burglar. That's a clincher; I bet I can take that story to a reasonable person of any political persuasion and they'll recognize it as being beyond the pale, a perversion devoid of any relationship to a sane theory of justice.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Commonalities Between Science And The Liberal Arts

There's a really good article over at the NYT about how colleges and universities are trying to come to a consensus regarding material that all students should know. Here's really the essence of the issue:
But in the end the committee couldn't come to an agreement. "If you've got a background in literature, say, it's very easy to solve the problem of general education - until you talk to the people in the sciences, and vice versa," says Benedict H. Gross, a mathematician who is also the dean of Harvard College and was a co-chairman of the general education committee. "Some people on the faculty had very specific lists of things they thought were essential to the curriculum, but these lists just didn't intersect. Try it at home. It's a good dinner party game - to see if you can agree on a brief list of things students need to know."
That's completely accurate and, at the same time, completely wrong. People seem to assume that there's an unavoidable and sharp disconnect between the sciences and the liberal art, but that can't possibly be true. I'm trained on the science side of things; if there were really a fundamental disconnect between science and the liberal arts I shouldn't even be able to follow the argument that the NYT was making in the article. The apparent division between the two domains is mainly the result of not digging deep enough. So let's play the party game, and see if we can come up with something that's useful to students in the sciences and students in the liberal arts. Just to make things fun I'm going to toss in another dichotomy: theory vs. applied. I'm really familiar with that one; the head of the department I studied under when I was in college was worried that if he allowed anything applied to sneak into the curriculum we'd be no better than ITT or DeVry. So we have four profiles for types of students:
  • Applied science: Like me, this type of student probably went into industry after college. Since I went to a college that was heavy on theory I had to learn applied skills on the job. But this is true of someone who had a heavy practical education, since practical skills learned in college become outdated and need to be periodically refreshed.
  • Theoretical science: This would mostly seem to cover people who go to grad school. Based on what my friends who went to grad school have done it seems that this type of student spends a lot of time doing research.
  • Applied liberal arts: These guys are all over the map; a lot of the liberal arts majors that I know went into fields that have absolutely nothing to do with what they studied.
  • Theoretical liberal arts: Some of these go to grad school; I assume they do research, but I've no firsthand knowledge of how this research compares to that performed by a theoretical scientist. Presumably there's more "paper" work since the many subjects in the liberal arts don't yield as readily to empirical analysis. The rest of the theoretical liberal arts majors I've know have followed the path of their applied brethren.
So what, if any, commonalities can we find in the tasks which all of these people need to accomplish in the workplace1 once they move on from college? The most obvious item is that all of them need to continue to teach themselves after they graduate. In the case of applied sciences/applied liberal arts they often have to learn new skills immediately upon graduation or shortly thereafter. Those who go on to grad school have to continue to refine and expand what they know with only minimal direction. So it would seem that equipping students for "meta-learning" should be a big component of any core curriculum. I was also going to suggest that the ability to construct and analyze arguments is critical, but on reflection I'm not so sure about this. I've had a lot of jobs which involved nothing in the way of advanced synthesis or analysis. Ditto problem-solving; we'd all like to be able to formulate an approach to a problem and then solve it, but I've had a lot of jobs where I didn't do a whole lot of that either. However, if colleges and universities want their graduates to have interesting, fulfilling jobs then they should focus on these aspects as well. I'd follow this further, but its late and I'm tired. Maybe another time.
1 College should be about more than just prepping for employment, but its nevertheless a major consideration.

Engaging Conspiracy

I've been following this exchange on Tbogg with some interest since its not everyday that the center of a controversy deigns to post about said controversy. After reading the comments left by Mr. Rawls and the rest of the commentators I've two observations about this entire debacle. Observation 1: Controversy over the memorial design is something that everyone should have expected. When the design of the Vietnam memorial was unveiled people were concerned about about the overt and covert meaning of the monument's geometry, color, minimalistic style, etc. Conspiracy is nothing new either; people think that The Washington Monument (and apparently all of The Mall) is part of some big ol' Masonic plot or something. Observation 2: The interpretation of architecture is completely non-deterministic. Where one person sees Islamic propaganda another person sees a design which is "pagan, or at least New Age". I think that the commentators on Tbogg were engaging Rawls incorrectly. Rather than tell him that he's nuts or try to engage him empirically, they need to engage in a meta-debate about the nature of proof and meaning (though some did get pretty close with responses which amounted to "so what"). If Rawls is claiming some kind of conspiracy someone needs to stand up and ask him what it would take to falsify his theory. As someone who claims a background in philosophy he should realize that until he proposes a mechanism by which his theory can be falsified he's just blowing hot air.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I Got Your Manipulation Right Here

This item over at Pandagon about the pastor caught in the blowjob debacle is fantastic. The comments are hysterical, especially
"How does someone get 'set up' when HE's the one asking another male to visit his happy place? Latham didn't deny he made the request. He wants us to believe he somehow was manipulated into asking for something he wouldn't ordinarily ask for."
Yea verily. I was trying to figure out how you could plausibly claim to be set up in this situation, and the only thing I could think of was "The turkey was egging me on... it kept going 'gobble', 'gobble', 'gobble'".

Friday, January 06, 2006

Not Another Reason To Hate Walmart

Usually I'm a big fan of Pandagon, but this is just stupid. Reading the original article, I see no reason to doubt the story that Walmart.com's link-generating software is buggy. Until someone demonstrates otherwise there's no reason to believe that the linking of Planet of the Apes to films about African-Americans is anything other than an unfortunate coincidence. Walmart is undoubtedly engaged in conspiracies to oppress just about everyone, but this isn't one of them. So knock it off already.

Katrina Was Not A Middle-Class Problem

Update: My beloved wife said that after reading the original post she thinks the hypothetical person without a car is a different person from the hypothetical middle-class mother. If that's the case I still stand by what I wrote below, but much of it is moot.
Crooked Timber drew my attention to a post at True Blue about the difficulties of evacuating from New Orleans in the time leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The author, discussing the situation of a hypothetical middle-class woman with 3 children, comes to the conclusion that evacuation would be "[f]lat out impossible". I recognize the difficulties that the evacuation posed and that, as the author notes, many of those who did not evacuate were poor, old, or children1, but I can't but feel that the author is setting up a rhetorical strawman (strawwoman?) in the case of the middle-class mother. For starters:
Every middle-class mother hears "immediate evacuation" and "5 days in the Superdome" and thinks, "Jesus Christ, I have no idea how much water I would bring for 5 days. Is it 5 gallons? Ohmigod, where are our passports? Do I have to bring the kids' birth certificates? What about the deed to the house? Would I have time to get my mother's jewelery [sic] out of the safe deposit, or is that selfishness that's going to kill my children?"
My first reaction is "Yes, getting your mother's jewelry out of the safe deposit box is a dumb idea. Some wonder it takes you so long to pack for the beach". This may sound unduly harsh, but I can't help but feel that its exactly her middle-classed-ness that makes this hypothetical into an intractable problem. Reading the stories of refugees from other countries I find that a consistent theme is when you're fleeing disaster you just pick up and go. Bear in mind also that many of these people were fleeing through hostile territory into neighboring countries, whereas our hypothetical mother of 3 need only travel to a different state at the most. Why the hell is she worrying about passports, birth certificates, and the deed to her house? Take your driver's license and worry about your house later, when everyone is safe. Now that I'm really getting my rant on let's look at the limitations that the author places on this hypothetical mother:
Tell her that she's got to evacuate without a car, and she'll start shaking her head. Tell her she's gotta do it in 18 hours, greyhound and Amtrak are shut down, it's 250 miles to get out of the hurricane's path, and she's got $200 bucks in her pocket, and every soccer mom will know with certainty what every soccer dad doesn't get--that it's impossible. Flat out impossible.
There's no justification provided as why this particular set of limitations is being imposed, hence the earlier comment about strawpersonage. So let's tackle these items one at a time:
  • 18 hours to evacuate: Think Progress has a lovely Katrina timeline, which leads me to conclude that that the 18 hours refers (roughly) to the span of time between the mayor issuing the mandatory evacuation order (9:30 am on the 28th) and landfall of the hurricane (7 am on the 29th). Why did she wait so long to begin preparations? As a middle-class mother she's educated and has access to the news, so its not unreasonable for her to be aware that a storm was approaching. For example, CNN report on 8/26 that "[a]s Katrina gathers strength preparing for its final assault on the Gulf Coast, residents from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana are boarding up their homes, expecting the worst from a potential Category 4 hurricane". Even allowing for some journalistic hyperbole this would indicate that residents of the Gulf Coast were aware of the seriousness of the oncoming storm well before the official evacuation order.
  • Without at car: Not sure why there's no car available; a middle-class mother of 3 almost certainly owns one, since lack of private vehicles in New Orleans primarily affects the poor. Others will be trying to flee as well, and you might end up in an hours long traffic jam, but you still have a car. The roads might be flooded but, as I indicated above, if the roads are already flooded you waited too long.
  • Greyhound and Amtrak shutdown: We've already established that as a middle-class mother you likely own a car. If, you don't then you probably know someone who does. In the author's defense on this one, those who didn't own cars and tried to get out late in the game were SOL.
  • 250 miles to get out of the hurrican's path: True, but based on this flood map it looks like you could at least get away from the flooded areas as long as you got South of the Mississippi. According to Google it's about 12 miles as the person walks to go from Swan St. (down by the lake) to Burmaster St (basically where you would be after crossing the 90 bridge). That's a long way to walk, especially with kids. But shit, it beats being in a flood, doesn't it?
  • $200: Total red herring. Hello, credit cards? Anywhere you could use cash prior to landfall you could probably use credit as well.
In conclusion, I don't think the author's argument holds up. A middle class mother of 3 almost certainly had the resources at her disposal to evacuate safely. Granted, the evacuation would suck and there'd be a lot of loss associated with the incident, but to claim that the evacuation is impossible is clearly disingenuous.
1 Which is another problem all together, at least in the case of children and the elderly. It implies that these individuals, who cannot reasonably be expected to fend for themselves, had no support system to take care of them. In the case of the poor, I believe that a some portion of my argument can be applied to them as well, though their diminished resources obviously makes the situation much more difficult.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sweet Jebus

Is anyone else but me disturbed that this is even an issue?

Evolution <> Sex Ed

Via Pharyngula, there's an interesting article (one of a series of articles) on the American RadioWorks website regarding recent developments in the teaching of science in relation to the whole ID/Evolution brouhaha. I was particularly struck by the following:
A man adds, "But I don't think it should be required to study human evolution if it interferes with a personal belief. It's like sex ed, you don't have to take that. It's personal preference. Same thing. Same concept."
I'm trying to figure out if that's an accurate analogy; are there any distinctions between the two which would make it an invalid comparison? The flaw here I think is a subtle misunderstanding of the primary reason why sex education is voluntary. Sex education is not voluntary because of its potential to interfere with personal beliefs, but rather because of the implicitly moral nature of the instruction. Many people feel that the very act of talking about sex has moral implications, while engaging in more robust discussion (contraception, orientation, etc.) clearly carries normative messages. Reasonable people can disagree about whether its proper for government institutions to be imparting normative messages to children; that's why sex education is voluntary, not because it conflicts with personal belief. Evolution*, despite protestation to the contrary, doesn't make normative assertions, being "descriptive rather than prescriptive". The fact that the descriptions conflict with some peoples' beliefs is true, but irrelevant. So, question answered, at least to my satisfaction. The analogy draw above falls apart because the argument for why sex education should be voluntary cannot be made about evolution+.
* Gah, I keep wanting to write "evilution"... too much Landover Baptist. + Got it right that time.

Niche Software Is Where Its At

When I grow up I want to start a software company that makes software for some niche market, say, university administration. My business plan is as follows:
  1. Charge people lots of money to install Oracle.
  2. Claim that anything past the installation of Oracle is a "software customization", allowing me to charge more money. For example:
    1. "Oh, you want to be able to talk to our authorization partner? We're going to have to send an engineer out to set that up?"
    2. "Recurrent billing? Yeah, we've been thinking about implementing that feature. I think we could do that if we set up a cron job."
  3. Profit.
The above summarizes my experience dealing with Jenzabar, a company that makes software which my alma mater uses. I've been trying to help them get some recurrent billing capability set up, and every time I've had cause to speak with Jenzabar about some feature I find out that its not installed by default or its not activated by default or some such thing. Gah.

The Democratic Response Is Annoying

I was listening yesterday to the Democratic response (no transcript seems to be available) to Gov. Pataki's State of the State Speech when I had to pull over and applaud Sheldon Silver for his bravery in bravely taking a brave stand in support of such unpopular causes as gun control and locking up sexual predators. Bravo... why don't you come out in favor of mom and apple pie while you're at it? I mean, really, this wasn't even an attempt at a real response; Sheldon was just up there patting the NY Democratic party on the back and spewing talking points. Pataki's speech referenced guns exactly once, and didn't mention sexual predators at all. They ought to drop the pretense and just call it the "Democratic State of the State Address". And why, oh why, are they focusing on these two issues? Could it be because they're... <dana carvey>easy</dana carvey>? I took a look at the changes to existing gun laws that they're going to implement and, really, they all appear to be minor tweaks in how violations related to gun trafficlking can be prosecuted. When a public official gets up and leads an address with "we're fixing illegal gun trafficking" I would surmise that the public expects more than "we're making the sale of a single gun a violent felony offense". And that annoys me as well. Selling a gun isn't violent, so why classify it as a violent offense? The obvious reason is that making it a violent offense tacks on larger penalties, which I think is the wrong approach for two reasons. One, classifying a non-violent act as a violent offense totally ruins the notion of having a special category for violent offenses. Two, it falls prey to the belief that increasing a penalty for a particular crime causes a meaningful decrease in the occurrence of that crime. That approach doesn't appear to work for the death penalty, so absent evidence to the contrary I have to believe that it will be totally ineffective in the case of gun trafficking as well.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

More On Knight-Ridder Etc.

After further thought I think I've put my finger on what it is exactly about yesterday's broadcast that I found vaguely annoying. Bluntly, people seemed to be in agreement that the quality of news content is decreasing, but nobody took the analysis further than "market forces". "The market" isn't some self-willed entity, it's just this abstraction that we use to talk about collective purchasing decisions. And the collective purchasing decisions right now tend to favor crap. Why didn't anyone come out and say "'real news' is in decline because people like reading crap, what are we going to do about it?". It's not like that's a particularly new or controversial statement, though I conceed that it may not have been touched upon due to time limitations.

Read This Now

Just got done reading this Sunday's NY Times Magazine cover article. Its one of the best pieces of writing I've seen in I don't know how long, and does a good job of explaining the issues that I think are at the heart of little-l liberalism. Also does a good job of dissecting common critiques of the liberal position, especially the venerable "liberals are intolerant of intolerance" argument. I'd rank this piece right up there with the Kitzmiller decision as something that right-minded people everywhere should be familiar with.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is This Pro- Or Anti-Feminist?

I've been following an ongoing discussion at Alas (a blog) regarding the potential implementation of women-0nly space/threads/forums, apparently driven by the difficulty in conducting a conversation amidst many aggressively anti-feminist posters. The idea seems to be that conversation will be more productive absent the background noise and atmosphere of intimidation. I bought that argument for the most part, and found myself wondering how exactly the content of the conversation would change in such a situation. In that sense I'm a little disappointed that they eventually decided to go for a less-restrictive policy of limiting some thread to "feminist, pro-feminist and feminist-friendly" posters only. Shortly thereafter this exchange was posted; good stuff and well-reasoned. But if you scroll down to Heart's response you eventually get to this:
The first oppression - oppression of women because we are women - occurred wherever women were assigned the tasks of sexual servicing men, reproduction for the benefit of the tribe or people group, and wherever women were assigned the tasks of the care of infants and children for the benefit of the tribe or people group. This goes back to the very earliest civilizations in all and every part of the world, without respect to race, ethnicity, religion, people group.
I've some concerns about the use of the word "assigned", since it implies choice and deliberate action. Acknowleging up front that I'm speculating at this point, it seems reasonable that if you go back early enough (Hobbes' infamous "State of Nature" or thereabouts) you get to a point where women engaged in the behaviors mentioned above by default, not through any active act of oppression. In this earliest period could anyone besides a woman have looked after the children? Men can look after infants in the modern era thanks, in part, to innovations in infant nutrition such as formula. But being unable to produce breastmilk would have disqualified a primitive man from childcare. I believe a similar argument holds regarding assignment for reproduction and possibly for assignment for sex. The ability to deliberately assign a reproductive role to women requires an understanding of reproductive cause-and-effect which was probably beyond that possessed by primitive humans; I suspect in this earliest period reproduction "just happened". During this period women could have been assigned for sex, since that's an easy enough concept for even a hypothetical primitive human to grasp, or they could have engaged in relations with men willingly; there doesn't seem to be a way to settle that question definitively. I would propose that, at least in two of the three cases mentioned above, womens' place was established by the ossification of what was originally merely expedient. The end result is largely the same, but the mechanism is different. Getting back to the original point, however, after stringing the above ideas together I was struck by the thought that I couldn't tell if this critique would be acceptable in a pro-feminist etc. thread. I think the critique itself is well-reasoned (otherwise why would I toss it out there?) but implicit in the critique are two potentially offensive ideas:
  • The oppression of women could be the result of a lack of collective action on the part of womenkind at some point in the distant past, allowing then-reasonable activities to become entrenched so that they could not be altered when they were no longer reasonable.
  • The oppression of women might not be the result of an active decision on the part of the male half of the species, in which case the idea that women were originally oppressed by men specifically because they were women (e.g. other) breaks down.
N.B. that none of this is to be taken to deny the reality of oppression as it stands today. But it does highlight a problem with limiting discourse on a subject to a particular set of individuals. I suspect that most pro-feminists would not object to the above, but that it might be seen as heresy by some as well. I'd like to see the folks at Alas and elsewhere tackle the problem of how to handle intra-community critiques in a limited thread. I find myself in favor of judicious banning, since a polite adversary would not appear to detract from the discussion.

The Market Is Only Part Of The Issue

I was listening to The Diane Rehm show this morning during a discussion of "The Future of Newspapers" when they touched on the current state of Knight-Ridder. Via Knight Ridder Watch, Knight-Ridder is up for sale because its not generating a return comparable with its competitors, though the details are a bit more complicated. There seemed to be a general consensus amongst the participants that this was an unfortunate turn of events and that the quality of the Knight-Ridder's products had been reduced amidst efforts to make the organization more competitive. Here's where I find myself in a dilemma. I agree with the commentators that it's unfortunate that news outlets in general are having to reduce the scope of their operations; I'd love it if the average newspaper were closer to the NYT, WSJ, etc. But at the same time I'm generally in favor of competition and free markets, especially in an instance like this where the competitors are all large corporate entities and the competition can be characterized (to a reasonable degree) as "fair". What to do when it appears that the judgment of the market leads to a questionable outcome? The first thing to consider is whether the above is an accurate characterization. Has the general quality of reporting declined in response to market pressures? And here we run into some difficulties, because "quality" is in the eye of the beholder. For example, consider this article over at Poynter Online about the efforts of Knight-Ridder and Gannet to improve their editorial quality, which talks in generally favorable terms about efforts to increase readership with improved local coverage as an alternative to (I assume) wire stories. These programs may increase readership, but a strong argument can be made that such an approach encourages parochialism. I feel fairly confident holding up The Economist as a paragon of news and analysis, but it doesn't really do local interest/human interest stories. Now, its certainly a valid critique to say that The Economist is a specialist rag and that the general population is not affected by nor needs to be concerned about EU farm subsidy give-backs. But can that same critique not also be applied to Diane and company? The masses are choosing those news sources which they believe to be most relevant to their lives; they don't really need to be able to read Paul Krugman's latest column. The whole idea of increased or decreased news quality is a red herring if you measure it in terms of local/original content vs. wire stories or whether a paper has the budget to run syndicated columns. These measures are being used as proxies for a more basic notion of "newsworthiness" having to do with historical notions of the media's role as government watchdog and promoter of civic virtue. Here's where I get cynical, stop me if you've heard this one before: the root cause of lamentations about the state of Knight-Ridder et. al. is that most people aren't concerned about civic virtue or the government in any meaningful sense. Which resolves my dilemma, because that particular malaise runs deeper than market forces. You could tinker and subsidize and whatever else in an effort to improve the quality of news against the tide of the market, but even if you did you'd have a product which was only interesting to a small percentage of the populace. And it probably wouldn't be as good as The Economist.


I've argued with myself at length as to whether setting up a blog is a worthwhile endeavor or just the ultimate excercise in narcissistic wankery (is there any other kind?). Having long held the notion that you should not speak unless you can improve the silence it seems presumptuous, at best, to put myself on public display. And yet, here I am. In the balance it seems that the potential for generativity outweighs the other concerns. I'm not an objective judge of my own ideas; perhaps they're good and perhaps they're crap, but the only way to make this determination is to engage in conversation with others. Hopefully they'll be more of the former and less of the latter. A side note about the site address: its not (much of) an attempt to be clever; this was the first address I came up with that wasn't already taken. The expansion of weblogs must slow eventually, at least on Blogger, not because people have lost interest but because they've exhausted the address space.
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