Monday, July 31, 2006

More On Alternate Paths

I've been mulling over the question which I raised earlier, about the possibility of alternatives to the standard "house, wife, kids" lifestyle which my cohort has fallen into. Apart from minor variations ("house, wife, dog", "house, husband, kids", etc.) this really seems to be the only game in town. I'm not entirely sure I understand why this is, but I've initial ideas. I recall thinking about this same thing in college. I had an inkling of this issue back then; I felt that I could see the broad outlines of my future vis-a-vis wife, kids, mortgage, etc. with relative certainty. At that point I thought that the right thing to do might be to actively reject all of that on the grounds that it was simply too easy, that I was allowing myself to be led by society rather than making an active choice on my own. But the notion just seemed too radical to me at the time, and I had no way of knowing if I was being foolish or if I was really on to something. So I ended up taking the easy path, to lead eventually to the aforementioned wife, kids, mortgage, etc.. I believe that a similar mechanism is at work in the rest of my cohort, as belied by my friend's comment about people we know having children almost by reflex. The crux of the issue is that, by the time we've reached the level of wisdom (for lack of a better word) required to recognize our situation its become awfully hard to extricate ourselves. I could divorce my wife and strike out on my own, but the social repercussions of that would be fairly severe. Nor would it be fair to my wife; we have an excellent marriage and I've no cause, moral, legal, or otherwise, to justify a divorce. Even if I were to undertake such drastic steps its not entirely clear that that would change anything. Even after liberating myself I'd still have to work for a living; its not like I'd suddenly be free to climb Mount Everest or take a year-long tour of the globe. Which seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that there are certain, inescapable patterns in modern life. Barring exceptional circumstances you have to work for a living. Thought its certainly possible to have an interesting, unusual, and/or fulfilling job, I get the feeling that this is where people of my ilk get sidetracked. Jobs in IT, or the hard sciences, or mathematics, can be intellectually stimulating, but they're not "interesting" in the same sense as oh, say, being an ambassador or working for Doctors Without Borders. More to come later maybe.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Question of Translation

Newsweek is currently running an article about Hip-Hop Liturgies, which I found vaguely interesting until I got to the hip-hop translation of Psalm 23. Take a minute and compare it to the original, and then ask yourself if "and I know that I am a baller and life will be phat" is really semantically equivalent to "thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over". I'd say most emphatically not. For example, "I am a baller" implies that the "balling-ness" (??) is an intrinsic property of the speaker, whereas the traditional translation attributes the anointing etc. to extrinsic sources (presumably God). I tried to find out more how about Ryan Kearse, the gentleman who adapted this particular psalm, went about the task without any luck. Most of the links that I was able to find quote the psalm itself or are talking about the source, The Hip Hop Prayer Book; I couldn't find anything about the adaptation process itself. Though its interesting to note that it appears to be making some Anglicans cranky (search the page for "burnings"). Right now I'm trying to figure out if this is just a misguided guy trying to do something good, or if its another sign of the general miasma of anti-intellectualism that seems to surround modern religious practice. As they point out here, this may just be a cause of "'a 40 year old white guy trying to sound all street and shit'". But the guy who edited the book, Reverend Timothy Holder, got his MDiv from Harvard Divinity School; presumably he understands the problems of maintaining nuance when translating a text. I have to assume that Rev. Holder is more interested in making scripture relevant than in maintaining its actual message. Which is fine by me, but once you admit that you're making shit up in order to draw people into your church it really becomes hard to maintain your moral authority.

Ballocks To Rochester, Part II

Earlier I wonder how the revenue from Rochester's usurious property taxes was being spent. Now we know... it got funneled into the horribly mis-managed Rochester Fast Ferry. You know, Rochester could be a really nice town if only the city government would stop acting like a civic version of the Keystone Kops.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ballocks To Rochester

I just got done paying ~$2500 in property taxes on ~$75000 of property. Uh-huh... where's all the money going, I want to know? It sure as hell isn't going to my neighborhood. And to think that Rochester has a comparatively low tax burden for NY. Fuckin'-a... some wonder no one wants to set up shop around here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Problem With The Justification Of Hate Crime Statutes

The rationale proffered for hate crime statutes is that, in David Neiwert's words, "[t]hey are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people". I can't say that I disagree with this reasoning; if a hate crime really is an act of public intimidation then it seems reasonable to treat it as a more serious crime. But I think a problem arises in automatically assuming that a hate crime is an act of public intimidation. Its easy to conceive of a crime motivated by hate which the perpetrator did not intend to be a public message. If the perpetrator did not intend to perform an act of public intimidation then its hard to justify the increased penalty for the act. For example, cross burning is a public display. What happened to Matthew Shepard, being left tied fence for someone to discover, is probably a public display. Etc. etc. etc. Its easy to argue that there is a symbolic angle to these types of crimes and that they are purposely calculated to cause mass distress amongst members of the targeted minority. But consider another variation. The perpetrator selects a member of a despised minority, takes them out somewhere remote, and shoots them to death. The crime is motivated by bias against the minority, making it a hate crime. And yet I find it hard to argue that the act is intended to intimidate other members of the minority. Absent some sort of obvious sign to the contrary there's no way to distinguish this crime from a random act of violence. I propose an alternative approach, one which highlights the reasoning behind expanded penalties for hate crimes. Why not create a category of crimes along the lines of "intent to intimidate" or similar? I believe this is a superior approach for a number of reasons:
  • It makes the reasoning behind increased penalties transparent; people will now understand than an additional crime has been committed against the community at large.
  • It raises the bar for hate crime prosecution. Some people might consider this a downside, but if you believe that intending to intimidate the populace merits a stiffer sentence then you'd better be prepared to prove it.
  • It sweeps up a wide variety of crimes which have hitherto been treated disparately; such a statue could be used to prosecute both hate crimes and terrorism. This makes sense since, at their core, both hate crimes and terrorism are about intimidating a group of people.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


You know what I hate? I hate it when some big computer company, who shall remain nameless, sells a solution to a customer that they can't support. Nameless computer company says to me "Hey, you, consultant dude, go out and implement this solution that we engineered". I go out, start putting the thing together, only to find out that its not working. Introducing Widget X to Host Y causes unexplained badness, which makes the customer twitchy since Host Y is a major profit center. So I call up the engineering support line for Nameless Computers, Inc. and get the runaround from their support folks. So then I call up the people in charge of the project and, after way too many hours of delay, I get an answer from a Fairly Important Person. To paraphrase: "We don't really have a whole lot of expertise in this area; support is going to be on a 'best effort' basis". Uhuh, you're shitting me, right? I've deployed I don't know how many units of Solution X for you in the past, and I only now find out that support for Solution X is on a 'best effort' basis. So what you're telling me is that you sent me out to muck around with their hardware on a platform that you really don't understand and hope that I, with my k-rad consulting skillz!!11!!, can make up the difference? Right. Let me tell you something... I'm not getting paid to architect your solutions, just deploy them. You've got a whole other department for architecture, and apparently they aren't doing their job. You keep fucking trying to burn your consultants like this, leave them holding the bag, and you're going to end up with problems.

Monday, July 17, 2006

At Last, A Real Brewpub

I like beer. A lot. I brew beer, I drink beer, I frequent a grocery store that sells nothing but beer. So it makes me sad when, in my travels, I find a brewpub, only to find out that they don't actually brew any beer. Sure, some of them do the whole 80+ beers on tap thing, which goes a long way to console me, but still I'm disappointed. So imagine my satisfaction at finding a bona-fide brewpub out here in the wilds of Southfield, Michigan. Imagine further, if you will, that this brewpub, going by the name of Copper Canyon, sells a beer which is close to unique. Now this is a rare event for me, having drunk as many different brands of beer as I have. Its unusual for me to run across something which make me say "Whoa, now that a good glass of beer". Copper Canyon sells a seasonal brew called Bourbon Imperial Stout, which bears a close kinship with Sam Adam's Triplebock. Its a high-alcohol stout (about %12) that, according to the barkeep, is aged in bourbon barrels. Tres bien... nice, deep notes of maple and maybe some coffee... all good. Oh yeah, and they sell growlers for $9... not bad either.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Myopia And Moronic Drug Policies

You know, the writers at the Economist are usually pretty quick to point out when government regulation of markets causes perverse behavior. So its inconsistent (but probably not surprising) of them to not mention the issue at all in this article about Afghanistan. They say that Afghanistan needs to spend less time growing poppies and more time growing wheat, but the solution that they propose totally misses the point:
Poppy-growing will end only when Afghans can earn money some other way, when junkies in rich countries stop taking dope and when, perhaps, Afghanistan has robust enough institutions to enforce its laws.
But, you know, another solution is available as well... make the damn things less profitable. The regulation of poppy-derived narcotics by rich countries is the reason it makes more sense for Afghans to plant poppies rather than wheat. If a major government, say... oh... the US, were to suddenly legalize opiates, many Afghans would suddenly discover the utility of planting a crop that they can both eat and sell. And this solution doesn't even require the government of Afghanistan to be able to enforce its laws; presumably Afghan farmers would start growing something else of their own volition. You know, this whole situation in kind of funny in a perverse way. The War on Drugs is now contributing to conditions which are detrimental to the War on Terror. I mean, based on what The Economist says it sounds like the warlords who are causing so much strife and general instability in the region pay for a large chunk of their operating expenses with money derived from growing poppies. That would be an interesting strategy, arguing for drug legalization on the grounds that such actions support the war on terror. Because its not just Afghani warlords who profit from drugs. What other crazy outfit, recently in the news, derives revenue from trade in illegal drugs. Could it be... North Korea? Do you see, oh do you see, boys and girls, how the stupid stupid War on Fun has contributed to current global instability? Its clear that anyone who is anti-drug is objectively pro-terror. End of discussion.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Here's Where I Go And Get Myself Into Trouble

PZ Myers is wrong. Atrios is wrong. Everyone else who approaches politics this way is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. Here's why: If politics is not to be just a matter of "might makes right" then it has to be rational. It has to be something that you can sit down and talk about over a cup of coffee. I can accept that, in order to prevent general badness in the short run, its necessary to take a pragmatic approach to politics. But what about the long run? PZ says
It's a tragic mistake to think most creationists will be won over by kind and supportive conversation over a cup of coffee, too, or by any kind of smokescreen argument presented because we think it's what they want to hear.
Ok, PZ, what's your long-term solution? Are you content with things as they currently stand, do you want the constant yelling back-and-forth of both camps to be the status quo in perpetuity? Atrios, want to explain how introducing "a more combative and caustic discourse" is going to help solve things in the long run? As I've said several time before, there seems to be a growing focus on the here-and-now within progressive culture to the detriment of the long-term outcome. PZ and Atrios both claim to be proud members of the "reality-based community", and yet they seem to have given up on convincing the opposition that their positions actually correspond to some objective truth out there somewhere. Why is that? Some reasons which spring to mind:
  • They've lost faith in the power of truth, such as it is. They no longer believe that ideas which correspond best to reality on the ground will eventually win out over ideas which don't.
  • They don't care about the long run; they're only concerned that "their side" win in the short term.
Neither of these is particularly savory to contemplate, but the latter, if it is true, can be attributed to the character (or lack thereof) of a single individual. The former, the lack of faith in the power of truth, has a much broader implication. To believe this is to believe that some significant portion of humanity is congenitally unable to evaluate the truth of an argument. Now I happen to believe that a great number of people are as dumb as a bag of hammers, and that this condition is responsible for a great many of the ills in the world. But I also believe that this condition isn't inevitable; people aren't destined to remain dumb unto the nth generation. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong, but if you do you have to accept the consequences of such a belief. You have to round these people up and make them wards of the state, tell them that they aren't smart enough to vote, sterilize them and take away their right to self-determination, etc. etc. etc. Am I ranting? You bet your ass I'm ranting. This kind of thinking pisses me off, and I think it bodes ill for the future that its gained such widespread acceptance.

100th Post

100th post, weeee! Seriously, though, its an appropriate time to consider whether this is a useful endeavor or whether it is, when all is said and done, still just masturbation. I'm inclined to think at this point that its not wholly without merit. Admittedly I had hoped to have more people to talk to, on the grounds that talking to people is a good way to work out ideas, but so far I've had little attention. Nevertheless, putting thoughts down on paper has proved useful in helping me understand why I think the way I do about certain issue. So for the time being it would seem that its worthwhile to continue the exercise.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bad Ideas In School Funding

Via Harry at Crooked Timber we find a link to an organization proposing a school funding method which they refer to as Weighted Student Funding (WSF). As usual, I try to be open-minded when I critique things, but this is an obviously horrible idea right from the start:
Principle 1: Funding should follow the child, on a per-student basis, to the public school that he/she attends.
No, no, no nononono... I read that over a couple times, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything, but it really is saying exactly what it looks like its saying. Explain to me how, exactly, this is going to fix a failing school? Let's assume, as these people seem to do, that more money allows a school to "do better", for some definition of that phrase. The obvious implication here is that, in order for a failing school to do better, it needs more money. Under the WSF scheme, however, you get more money by attracting more students. Almost by definition if you are capable of attracting more students then you are not a failing school. Here's how this plays out:
  • School A sucks.
  • Child number 1 leaves school A, because it sucks, for school B, which sucks less.
  • Part of A's budget migrates to B along with the child.
  • School B gets better, because it has more money.
  • School A gets worse, because it has less money.
What's perverse about this, however, is that School A is trapped in a downward spiral. In addition to variable, per student costs schools also have fixed costs for facilities etc. The marginal cost of a student's departure gets larger as each student leaves, since the school's fixed costs must now by covered by the funding of a smaller number of students. As students leave the expenditures for maintenance increase as a percentage of total expenditures, squeezing out things which can (theoretically) scale with the number of students, such as staffing levels. Student flight causes the school to get worse, faster, which triggers more student flight. So yeah, not a really great idea. I was also, while reading the article, waiting with baited breath for how they were going to fund gifted and talented students under a scheme where funding is tied to a student's needs. Here's what they had to say about that
Most districts that have implemented weighted student funding assign higher weights for:
  • students from low-income families
  • English language learners
  • students with disabilities (including different weights for different types of disabilities)
  • students with previously low test scores
But other categories could also be weighted higher, such as:
  • gifted and talented students
  • returning drop outs
  • migrant students
  • students who have changed schools
One of these things is not like the other. We have seven instances of increased funding for students who are relatively disadvantaged and one instance of increased funding for students who are at a relatively advantaged. Try as I might I can't come up with a coherent funding principle which allows you to fund students in this manner. If you look at their proposed weighting criteria you find that, when they aren't essentially arbitrary ("[n]egotiation and debate to arrive at consensus") they argue against weighting G&T students highly (market valuation, expert costing). Frankly, it looks to me like they just tossed in "gifted and talented students" because someone was going to ask about them1. Which, I think, highlights a problem with the weighting system. Assuming that most people favor spending more money per pupil on G&T students (I assume this is the case, since the WSF people saw fit to include them in their list of special groups) then the WSF system is incomplete at best, because it can't fit this preference into its weighting framework. This, of course, leads one to ask why people favor spending more money on G&T students? Pragmatically, I suspect that they implicitly recognize the relatively high RoR to society of investing in these students. But if you base funding on RoR then how can you justify spending on disadvantaged students where the RoR is relatively low? All of these questions point to the same conclusion, that the WSF people (and society as a whole) needs to seriously reexamine how funds are allocated, since right now there doesn't seem to be a unifying principle behind this allocation.
1 Full disclosure, I was a G&T student and am very much in favor of funding such programs.

As Long As I'm Picking On Jill

Contrary to her assertion, Exodus 20:17 isn't actually an injunction against leering at women. You find that the coveting of the wife is firmly sandwiched between coveting your neighbor's house and coveting your neighbor's ox. Exodus 20:17 is an injunction to respect private property, women happening to be a common chattel in those times.

The Man Is Trans-Racial, Or Something

Jill has a post at Feministe arguing that Black people are being forced to assimilate by adopting conservative, "white" hairstyles. Without a doubt this is true, but I'm skeptical of the thesis forwarded by Ms. Kaplan:
What's troubling is that, by being forced to change their hair, black people once again are being forced to shoulder the burden of proof: We're not as fearsome as we look. It's up to us to mitigate our dark skin and ethnic features by framing them with hair that's as neat and unethnic as possible.
This assertion seems to be vulnerable to the counter-argument that Blacks are not the only ones who have to put up with this type of restriction on their appearance in the corporate world. I would argue that Blacks are not being singled out on account of perceived fearsomeness or similar. Rather, they are just one of many groups of people who don't meet a certain, narrow standard of "professional appearance". Jill thinks otherwise:
Of course it's not racism when we're targeting hairstyles worn disproportionately by black people, and insisting that they take time-consuming and expensive steps to make their hair more like "white" hair.
But neither she nor Ms. Kaplan provide any evidence that targeted hairstyles really are disproportionately worn by Black people. Absent any evidence in this area I'll make a guess that the most targeted hairstyle is actually "long hair on men", which would seem to affect Blacks as often as other people. Admittedly this is anecdotal, but I can't think of any corporate environment I've ever been in that would accept long hair on a White guy but not dreadlocks on a Black man. Next time you're in an office play a little game: count the number of guys with long hair; you'll quickly find that the watchword seems to be "high and tight". Here is where I think Jill exposes her own biases by automatically associating the corporate look with Whiteness, as if our Corporate Overlords are somehow representative of the White race as a whole. This comparison is no more valid than saying that Al Sharpton is representative of all Black people. Rather, its important to remember that the corporate look is part of a global, transracial conspiracy perpetuated on the masses by business types. So really, I think the moral of the story is that The Man doesn't discriminate when it comes comes to appearance; he treats everybody like shit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Finding A Middle Ground

I had the opportunity to visit a friend of mine in Boston yesterday, and we ended up talking about the rut(s) in which our cohort has found itself. There seems to be a bi-modal distribution. Most of us are law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes and go to work. A smaller portion are caught up in psycho-dramas of various sorts, mostly of their own devising. Both lifestyles are, in their own respective ways, fairly predictable. As a result it seems that, every time we get together, we have less and less to say to each other. It seems kind of sad, but its also true. Let's consider the taxpaying contingent: We're all old enough now that we've either had jobs for awhile, or we're finally finishing our various advanced degrees and looking for something to do post-whatever. Most of us get up, go to work, and then come home again. A lot of us are married or engaged, and a few have gotten to the point where we're breeding because, as my friend so eloquently put it, "it seems like the thing to do". The most entertaining thing to do when we get together is to talk about the latest dramas from the psychotic contingent, but that wears quickly as well. We're all slowly but surely sinking into the house/dog/1.2 kids paradigm, not necessarily by choice but more just by default. So what to do? My friend and I tried to chew this question over and came up with absolutely nothing. Is that a failure of imagination on our parts, or is there actually very little choice for us in terms of lifestyle? I will think on this, and maybe write more later.
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