Battlepanda: January 2006


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Literally full of Claptraps

How fascinating in the wake of the stand-and-clap fest that was the SoTU to read this by Neil Gaimon, which commenter Sasha quoted at Legal Fiction:
I've long known that Claptrap means rubbish or nonsense. I was browsing in a dictionary the other day, as one does, and learned that it came from things one could say on a stage or to an audience that meant very little, but were automatic applause-getters. (Things that literally trap, well, clapping.) And it's also the name of a machine they had once in old theatres that simulated the sound of applause. It's such a good word: anything declaimed from the stage that gets people clapping without thinking. Claptrap. And just as applicable to any side in a political debate...

And now we know. By the way, if there are any congressional candidates reading this, I'll match Publius' contribution to any campaign running on a platform of not standing and clapping during the SoTU.


Man, if I have to hear Tim Kaine say "There's a better way" again, I am going to scream. I don't mind that he's pug-nosed. I do mind that he has all the charisma of a half-dried bucket of concrete and gave a speech that totally refused to engage.

Is this the best we can do? Is this robotic, lukewarm, incoherent, stingless "response" that didn't actually answer anything specific that Bush said tonight all we can come up with? It's almost as if Kaine is deliberately making his speech boring to overcome the president's time advantage -- he only got 10 minutes, but he made it feel like an eternity. Was John Kerry washing his hair tonight? Did Barack Obama have to rush off to a party afterwards? Did John Edwards have to get his beauty sleep in to maintain his youthful appearance?

As for the rest of the SoTU, I honest didn't find much that was blogworthy. Yes, there were many, many moments when I wanted to tear my hair out. Other moments where I was glad I made a strong alcoholic beverage just for the occasion. But basically, nothing I didn't expect. There goes the Amazing Chimpy, promising all sorts of wonderful things while pushing his appallingly irresponsible tax cuts. There he goes artfully talking about failed states, democracy building and 9/11 all in one breath, implying artfully the link between Iraq and 9/11 without connecting the dots. The interesting thing was, the pundits on MSNBC actually remarked upon it, as well as Bush's deft way of tacking "for the troops" or something at the end of an applause line about Iraq to force the Democrats to stand and clap. They totally picked up on it, but they didn't call Bush on it. They merely observed it with a faintly amused air and moved on, as if lying to the American people through cheap debating tactics was rather clever of the usually leaden G.W.

By the way, this lying by implication thing is working so well for Bush in terms of estabilishing the spurious link between Iraq and 9/11, I think the Bushies are making greater use of this gambit -- for instance, in a thinly veiled attack on stem cell research, Bush talked about the need to stop cloning, estabilishing embryos for research and human-animal hybrids. Wha??? As Gene said at the time, "has this guy confused reality for The Island of Dr. Moreau?" Great. Soon we'll be seeing polls showing most American believe there is a link between stem cell research and cloning batboys.

Oh, and not once in the speech, nor the rebuttal, nor the part of the MSNBC reaction interview with DiFi that I caught did anyone mention the gross corruption scandals that is enveloping the GOP right now. I guess noone thought it's all that important that so many Republican members of the senate are coming under investigation for bribetaking.

Sign the Petition for Cory Maye

Lawrence Krubner and Laura Denyes at What is Liberalism have been tireless in trying to advance the cause of Cory Maye. Now they have put forward a petition, and if you care about this case, please sign it to show your support.

Sign the Petition

The Lazy Panda linkdump

Too lazy to write proper posts...but these are the gems left in the net after my morning trawl through the internets.

-- The case for Euro optimism?
Despite his subtitle (''Social Europe vs. Liberal America"), Pontusson says it's unfair to compare Europe to the United States alone. So his third category is the ''liberal-market economies": America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.

Within this framework, it's not clear that liberal economies generate more wealth. Americans do make more per capita than anyone else: $36,100 a year in 2002, for example, but social-market Norway is right on its heels, at $35,500, and most of the other nations fall into a narrow band of $26,000 to $29,000. All of which makes the supremacy of either social or liberal approaches far from obvious.

Then there's inequality. Correcting for purchasing power in each country (which helps the United States), Pontusson comes up with a poverty rate of 15 percent in the liberal-market economies, more than three times that in the other two groups. The American rate is 11.7 percent; the rates in liberal-market Ireland, Australia, and the United Kingdom are higher.

-- Mike the Mad Biologist names and shames the Democratic senators who didn't back the filibuster.

-- If true, this is shocking.
Last week, Col. Janis Karpinski told a panel of judges at the Commission of Inquiry for Crimes against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York that several women had died of dehydration because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. They were afraid of being assaulted or even raped by male soldiers if they had to use the women's latrine after dark.

The latrine for female soldiers at Camp Victory wasn't located near their barracks, so they had to go outside if they needed to use the bathroom. "There were no lights near any of their facilities, so women were doubly easy targets in the dark of the night," Karpinski told retired US Army Col. David Hackworth in a September 2004 interview.

The big bronze coffin

There's a great piece of commentary here on the inevitability of healthcare rationing. Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain to me why it is verboten to discuss the rationing of care, especially end of life care, as a way of controlling costs for medicare and medicaid, yet it is A-OK that 45 million uninsured Americans get bupkis. People need to acknowledge that diminishing return sets in at some point for medical care, but it is unfair to expect the patient, their family or their doctor to recognize that point.

A personal story to illustrate my point -- my Grandmother spent the final years of her life in Canada, where she was very happy, hale and healthy until she came down with a massive stroke without warning. She never regained consciousness. She was hospitalized and the doctor told us there was nothing they could do but to keep her comfortable. She was not on a ventilator, and there was no attempt to feed her via a tube. She hanged on for long enough for us all to gather and be beside her when she passed.

I sometimes wonder how this scenario would have played out in the United States. If we were given a choice to undertake measures to keep her alive for a little bit longer, how would we have reacted? I'm no medical expert, nor an expert on the end-of-life policies of the Canadian healthcare system, so this is more of a thought experiment than a speculation on what might really have happened. But say the doctor came up to us and told us we could extend her life by inserting a feed tube and putting her on a ventilator. What could we say except for "do it"? Any other response would have felt like a betrayal in that moment. Yet looking in retrospect, the way she was allowed to pass peacefully and without any last-minute traumatic attempts to extend her life, be it by days or weeks, was a kindness.

Incidentally, my grandma was sent off in the Sherman Tank of coffins. It was big and bronze and ornate and lead-lined and cost a hideous amount of money. Afterwards, I talked with some fellow mourners and we all agreed that a simple cremation would have been much more in keeping with the spirit by which the woman lead her life, with a fridge full of leftovers, a heart full of charity and kindness, and a dislike for extravagance and ostentation. But I also understand how her children felt compelled to honor her in one of the few remaining ways that they can, no matter how irrational. When I hear about the medicare crisis and how end of life care is devouring such a large portion of our limited healthcare resources, I keep thinking back to that big bronze coffin -- a piece of sad symbolism we can ill afford.

Token freedoms

Apparently, the Czechs are a real nation of stoners:
Costing as little as $5 a gram, marijuana is cut and rolled throughout Czech society. "There's seven profiles of marijuana smokers: computer programmers, environmental activists, university students, teenagers, villagers in Moravia who now smoke joints instead of drinking plum brandy, reggae music listeners and 80-year-old ladies buying marijuana for their husbands who have Parkinson's and other illnesses," Titman said.
Isn't that like, um, everyone?

Mark Kleiman think
we can steal their system -- make possession and growing and even distribution legal -- but not for profit. Of course people would keep selling small amounts among themselves, but big-business marketing would be out of the question, and the flood of legalized pot would seriously shrink the illegal market in dollar terms. Of course, much too sensible to happen in the United States.

I'm it!

I see that I have been tagged by Nick of Electoral Maths for a blogmeme that's been going around...ten views I hold despite the lack of concrete supporting evidence -- seems kind of redundant for all youse who read my blog -- it consists mostly of views I hold despite the lack of concrete evidence. But hey, the meme has got to be obeyed...

(1) Despite what Prof. DeLong might think, most American dessert recipes egregiously overuses cinnimon. Most apple pie recipes, for instance, can be improved by halving the cinnimon and doubling the nutmeg. OTOH, cinnimon is criminally underused in savory dishes in the American cannon. Try a scant 1/8 teaspoon in your next pot of stew or chili. It won't be enough to make the dish taste cinnamon-ey, but just enough to add this indefinable richness.

(2) If one folds pajamas up neatly as soon as they are taken off, they can be re-worn again (within reason) without being gross. However, if one allows them to lay crumpled and unfolded any amount of time at all, they become dirty and now need to be relaundered.

(3) I spend too much time blogging. But if I did not blog, I would spend the time I spent blogging doing something equally unproductive.

What? That's only three? I guess I don't hold as many interesting un-backed up beliefs as I thought. Or they're just not occuring to me right now. I reserve the right to pop up with #4 to 10 at random times.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Oh....Brah-vo! [sarcastic clapping here...]

Matt Stoller at MyDD has a blistering post blasting the Senate Dems for their craveness -- too afraid to do the right thing when it mattered, yet wanting the credit all the same:
Think about it for a moment. John Kerry called for a filibuster from Switzerland two hours after it became public that there were not enough votes for a filibuster.

Indeed. Talking about craveness, I see that from across the aisle, Mr. Chafee has finally decided to join us.

Look, guys. In kindergarten, you'd get a gold star sticker just for trying. But after that, the goal is to actually accomplish something, m'kay?

Kickass Alumna of Princeton

Jessica Wilson at the Leiter Reports shares some great anecdotes from her mother that are both interesting from the perspective of how far gender equality has come in just a few decades, and just plain fun to read.

Apropos of Alito's '72 membership in the anti-coed Concerned Alumni of Princeton... mom went to Princeton on a Woodrow Wilson graduate fellowship in '76 to study economics, just seven years after Princeton admitted women into its undergraduate program. Evidently Princeton had long been admitting women into its graduate programs (I've been unable to find out just when this occurred), but in any case in her day the continuing supposition in "Princetonian" contexts was that Princetonians were male.

So, for example, her grad studies done, my mother (living in NYC) would take friends or interviewees to the Princeton Club for dinner or a drink. It was (probably still is) a lush place, which at the time was staffed by a froggery of ancient waiters, who at the end of the meal would shuffle up and ask with decades-old presumption: "Which of you gentlemen have the card?". At which point my mother, with great satisfaction, would say, "I have the card", and whip it out with great flourish (we're big on flourish in my family).

Speaking of cards, younger readers may not know that just a short while ago women couldn't even get credit. After my mother and father divorced in '77, my mother (paid as poorly as journalists are usually paid, and with custody of 3 children, etc.) was short on cash. She had been using an Amex card for years (and had a perfect credit history, had been working, etc.), but the card was primarily in my dad's name; so she called up Amex and requested her own card. Some time later she got a letter saying, "We're sorry, but we are unable to give you credit at this time". No explanation.

Conveniently enough, my mother was working for PBS as a writer for a show called Economically Speaking. So she called Amex back and said "Hi there. I'm a scriptwriter for PBS and we're interested in doing a story on women and credit; conveniently enough you have just refused me credit. We'd like to bring down a camera crew and interview you about your reasons for doing so". (To be sure, the story wasn't actually on the drawing board; but my mother could have made it the case that it was.) The person at the end of the line said: "Let me get right back to you". One minute later they called to say "Your Amex card is in express mail, you should have it by tomorrow". Sensing a successful strategy, mama-san did the same thing with MC and Visa. In each case, she applied for the card, and was flatly turned down (no reason given). In both cases, she called and suggested that they might like to talk about it on-camera, in reference to a story about women and credit; in both cases, she not only got the card, she got it by overnight mail.

The story continues. A couple of years pass. My mom has moved from PBS to US News and World Report, where every month they brought in a speaker for a roundtable discussion with the reporters and editors. One month they bring in the president of Diner's Club. My mom is the only woman at the table. The president looks at her and says: do you have a Diner's Club card? Mom says no. He says, you really should apply for one -- we need more women with cards. So she says OK, fills in an application, and of course gets rejected. At this point she has had an Amex, MC, and Visa, respectable jobs, and perfect credit, for years. She calls up the prez, tells him what happened, and expresses her opinion that this would make a great article for US News. He says: I'm putting you on hold ... Something has gone wrong". Back in a flash: "There was a horrible mishap. Your card is in overnight mail".

(Again, via Len)

For those of youse with the Monday blues

At least you're not this guy...
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(Via Len at Dark Bilious Vapors)

Thanks, Professor Meyers!

PZ Meyers over at Pharyngula is, hands-down, my favorite science blogger ( Carl Zimmer and the Evil Monkey come close, but their posts can be sparse and sporadic). Not only does he keep us lay people abreast of scientific developments in little words we can understand, but every now and then he digs up a little nugget of joy like this one.

Gotta love that punchline! I'm sure geneticists and biologists have no other explaination for pygmies and dwarves. Unassailable logic, that.

Bribe them to do better

Via Matt Yglesia, I find this post by Eduwonk which argues convincingly for an idea that I found kind of quackish when I first heard of it -- bribing kids to do better at school.
Playing the piano eventually becomes its own reward, but countless parents have used every kind of bribe to encourage their kids to practice more. Nothing wrong with that: The kids don't need to love piano while they're kids; they just need to learn it so they can love it when the time comes. And reading, unlike piano, is something kids need to learn whether they ever love it or not.
Shouldn't learning be its own reward? Sure, in a perfect world why not. But just let me tell you that I don't think learning for it's own reward is something a large proportion of kids enjoy for most of their classes, the classes that they have to do well in to get ahead in life. Those of us who are lucky enough to come from affluent, education-focused background learn soon enough that getting good grades is its own reward -- in terms of approbation from parents and teachers, satisfaction from achieving a difficult goal and most importantly of all, as a tiny rung on the ladder that leads to a place at a great college, which in turn is built up as the first step towards having a good life. Now, a lot of parents over do it, and I certainly don't think this system is perfect. But you can see where I'm going -- kids from affluent background don't just do better because they are more likely to fall in love with learning, there are a lot of stick-and-carrot pressures out there that causes their behavior to conform to that of a good student.

Sure, it's not as if disadvantaged kids are unexposed to the "you need to do well at school to succeed" message. But I'm sure that message rings a little hollow when the lives adults in the community around you do not seem to bear out the truth of this bromide. Pizza parties, gift certificates and petty amounts of cash might not be a great subtitute for the constant, pervasive , steady and supportive atmosphere for encouraging learning in more affluent and highly educated households, but if it's shown empirically that it works, it's better than a kick in the teeth.

Monday Book Blogging: Ender's Game

Wow! A fiction book! True, it's hardly War and Peace, but for some perverse reason I feel a swelling of pride just making it all the way through a narrative book these days, even if it is science fiction aimed at a young adult demographic. You see, what I wrote about the atrophying of my reading capabilities after extensive blogging goes double for fiction books:
Too much of my disposable time is taken up blogging and watching TV. I love both dearly, but I can almost hear my attention span shrinking. After a long blogging session, trying to focus on a book can be like trying to climb up a slippery pole -- my eyeballs keep losing hold of the text after a few pages and my brain screams for something new, something new.
With non-fiction, writers generally try to cram as much information into their paragraphs as possible. The style, for the most part, is less florid, though some are very vivid. A non-fiction book is an informational delivery device rather than, to quote Jasper Fforde's delightful term for fiction, an imagino-transference device. It is a regrettable fact that as I have grown older, it is becoming harder and harder to immerse myself in a book as completely as I used to be able to. I didn't used to read books as a child -- they transported me to another world. The struts and supports of prose and plot fell away for me very easily. Now I'm so information-oriented. Any descriptive scenes that don't advance the plot kills me. Even as the plot advances, sometimes I find that I just don't care.

All of this is a round-about way of saying that I probably would have enjoyed Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card a lot more if I read it a decade and a half earlier. The details of Ender's world as a child soldier is superbly rendered. The characters are real despite sprouting dialog that seems fake. The situations they find themselves in are highly improbable but psychologically compelling. I was never much for "boy genius against the world" type stories, then or now. But this was a well-written book.

I also think it would have helped if I didn't find out halfway through the book that Card himself is the biggest religious douchbag who goes to bat vigorously for ID and writes disturbing anti-gay screeds that say horrid, bigoted things in such a reasoned, evenhanded tone that it makes me want to scream.

So, what's next for book blogging? Gods help us, it's a self-help book. Believe me, I do need the help in this area so very badly. It's called Getting Things Done by David Allen, and I've heard good things.

The Battlepanda wordcloud

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Found this cool gizmidget via Lawyer, Guns and Money.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Moral Maze of Meat: Woof Woof edition

In other, much sadder doggy related blogging, I read at the Peking Duck that the French Society for the Protection of Animals issued an appeal calling for China to stop the cruel slaughter of dogs for meat.

Now, I am sympathetic to their point of view. The practice of inflicting excessive cruelty to animals, especially at slaughter, is not right whereever it occurs in the world. I would say that it is especially despicable when done to dogs, because so many of them bring us happiness by sharing our lives and giving us their love. But that's my personal view as a dog owner.

However, aren't the French SPA being just un petit peu hypocritical by going after dog-eating in China when the gourmets in their midst are eating fois gras, which is the grotesquely enlarged liver of duck and geese produced by force feeding the birds pounds of grain daily via a metal tube?

It is always easier to criticize the barbaric practices of other societies, isn't it? Animal rights activists in China itself successfully lobbied and protested to keep bullfighting out of China on cruelty to animal grounds.

Yappy New Year

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

In the good old days...

Reading the following made my blood run cold:
When I was a first-year intern at the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, the first patient I had was a woman who’d had 11 children and had self-aborted herself, because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, with some instrument of some kind. And I was in charge of her case, as a young intern, with her intestine coming out of her vagina because she’d perforated the vagina with the instrument. And she had massive infection, multiple abscesses in all the vital organs in the body and she died.
We couldn't possibly go back to those days...could we?

In more positive news, Target fired a pharmicist's sorry ass after she refused to dispense Plan B...and refused to refer the customer to another pharmacist.

The blogisphere disconnect

The first time I came across the blogisphere disconnect was in the Democratic primaries of the last presidential election cycle. I was moderately pro-Dean at first, but soon switched to Edwards and really got involved with fervor. If I had to pick my top three candidates, it would be Edwards followed by Dean and Clark, with everybody else left way in the dust. I have a feeling if you did a straw poll in left blogisphere my view would be pretty close to the consensus, with individual preferences changing, but the general top 3 group staying the same. I watched well-nigh in amazement as Kerry rounded up primary after primary, building momentum on back of the fuzzily held idea of "electability" and soon became unstoppable. Before that point, I used to think of the blogisphere as an extension of the general populace, the politically aware avant-guard -- we go where eventually they would follow. But in reality, it was more like the blogisphere was a petty bantustan -- our brilliant argument and petty squabbles alike were quite irrelevant. Now, I want to stress that this confidence that the public would eventually come around to our way of thinking is not down to arrogance, well, not arrogance of the obvious sort. I never thought that the blogs had enough influence to give the election one way or another to any candidate. However, I did put great stock in our ability to be well-informed and to prognosticate based upon that information. But when the public took a look at the candidates, they evidently did not see what we see.

This disconnect is continuing. Chris at MyDD has an interesting piece on why the netroots (I would say the blogs in general) dislikes Hilary Clinton despite the fact that she would be the frontrunner candidate if the primaries were held tomorrow. On the right, I see that McCain is considered the least desirable candidate and Condoleeza Rice the most desirable. I'm not an expert on the preference of the Republican masses, but I have a feeling those rankings don't reflect more general sentiments.

Where does the disconnect come from? Is it possible that the blogisphere is simply better informed about the candidates than the public? Then how come public opinion diverge so strongly with the blog consensus close to election, when there is so much information out there? Is it because the bloggers are just a more radical group? Certainly possible. Or it could be that the blogisphere is small enough for a few well-made arguments to gather support as they spread through linkage, gaining in influence and credibility until the tipping point is reached and it becomes conventional wisdom -- but only among those who read and write the blogs.

Another reason why I blog

...because real-life interactions just require too much coordination. Yesterday night, Gene and I attempted to go to the Drinking Liberally meeting in Winston-Salem to meet some like-minded folks and drink some beer. We even went as far as to get the correct directions and finding the restaurant successfully. Unfortunately, it was crowded, and we belatedly realized that we have no way of recognizing our group...

Good thing we were in Winston to run errands anyhow. But sheesh, how embarrasing.

Friday, January 27, 2006

That powder's not getting any drier

The arguments for filibustering Alito has really firmed up over the past few days. I think it clarified a lot of people's thinking when the question moved beyond whether this is a confirmation we could block to whether this is a fight we could come out ahead on. I think the answer to the first question is probably no -- there is a little tactic known as the nuclear option. But the second part of the question might well be yes, and a lot of people are coming onboard to the idea that the Democrats should fight, even if they know that they might not be able to bork.

Even the usually moderate and cautious Kevin Drum is throwing his lot in with the filibuster Alito crowd:
But in politics, if you only fight when you're sure of victory, you're never going to fight at all. Senate Dems blew the Judiciary Committee hearings as a chance to educate the country about Alito's radical views on presidential power, and a filibuster fight would give them a second chance. They should take it.
I tend to think that Publius of Legal Fiction is right on Alito -- most Americans don't live and breath politics, like bloggers. They know that there is a bruhaha over Alito, but the specifics have not yet pierced into their consciousness. If nothing else, like Kevin said, the filibuster will give the Dems more time to make Alito a major liability come election time. Of course, one likes to think that the American people make a point of sussing out the candidates for the supreme court on a thorough and independent basis. But to be perfectly frank, that's not what happens. The average American, even those who considers themselves engaged, do what I do a lot of the time -- they turn the TV on one of the cable news networks while they're fixing dinner or something, letting most of the babbling of the talking heads wash over them, absorbing only the gist of the conversation. This means it never works to sit back and expect the facts of your case to make the argument for you. To make the public see Alito as the bad deal for them that he is, we need to do more than to take a position passively -- we have to go out there and rumble. Josh of Thoughts from Kansas puts it well:
And the filibuster forces people to pay a little more attention. Many people, forgetting the lesson Hannah Arendt taught us, think that the banality of the hearings means Judge Alito is not evil, is not the wrong man for the job, and is not going to mess with their lives.
One school of thought for why we should hold off on the filibuster is that somehow the responsibility for protecting the filibuster is in Democratic hands because we know that the other side is crazy enough to use the nuclear option. Now, personally I don't know if our congress is better off with or without the filibuster, but what I do know is a situation in which we cannot use the filibuster except with the permission of the other side is not only bad for the Democratic party in this round, but a state of affair that weakens our democracy in the long run because the bully is being rewarded. I see this kind of thinking advanced for the impeachment issue too. Most recently, Ezra, who is usually quite sound, said of the prospect of impeachment:
• It's bad for the republic if impeachment becomes a routine feature of second-terms. Yes, I know that Democrats shouldn't be limited merely because the Republican Class of 1994 proved a crop of witch-hunting demagogues, but sometimes, fair or not, someone needs to play the adult. In this case, it's us.
Funnily enough, when it comes to Alito, it is also we who have to be the adult to preserve the filibuster. In fact, I have this sinking feeling that the onus is always going to be on us to preserve the dignity of the republic from this point on forth because the Republicans just don't care anymore. Starting from Al Gore's gracious acceptance of his "defeat", we have bit our lip in the face of Republican shenedigans and outrageousness. Sometimes, when we feel uppity, we sigh dramatically and perhaps even roll our eyes a little. We keep waiting for the American people to recognize our patience and forebearance, but all they see is a party that won't stand up for itself. So why should they think that we would stand up for Americans either?

Like Dadahead said. The Dems must have the world's driest powder keg by now. If not now, then when?

Oh Charming

"We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," Coulter said. "That's just a joke, for you in the media."

From the look of this photo, somebody else ate the rat poison meant for Stevens already. Just kidding, of course.
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Conservatism is undead.

In short, people are just plain crazy

Via Kevin Drum, I read this fascinating article by Virginia Postrel about how different groups deal with risk. It's all good stuff, but like Kevin, I found that this popped out at me:

For instance, 80 percent of high-scoring men would pick a 15 percent chance of $1 million over a sure $500, compared with only 38 percent of high-scoring women, 40 percent of low-scoring men and 25 percent of low-scoring women.

I think of myself as a pretty risk-averse person, financially speaking. I have my savings mostly in an ING account rather than the stock market. But this is just crazy! A million is a thousand thousands. Why the hell would anyone pass up a 15% chance at it for a measly $500 dollars? The sex difference is also very disturbing -- I don't really care whether it's biological or sociological -- it is a problem if there is this level of disparity between the ability to handle risk between the sexes.

And the tragic thing is, when confronted with the very bad risk to return of a lottery, many of the same folks would would pass up a 15% chance at a million for a safe $500 could probably be tempted into a flutter.

Oh, the stupidity

This really is Political Correctness gone insane:

School board strikes book with slur from Black History Month reading list

ABSECON, N.J. (AP) _ Bowing to a parent's complaint, school officials have stricken a book from an elementary school's Black History Month reading list because it contains a racial slur.

"The teachers may see this as an example of something they can help fix, but we believe at fourth grade the children do not have the maturity to truly understand it," said parent Lisa Rex, whose complaint prompted the action.

Published in 1995, "The Well" by Mildred Taylor is about a black family in early 20th century Mississippi that has the town's only working well and shares its water with neighbors, including members of a white family who use the racial epithet.

Pretending that ugly racial slurs does not exists within the confines of a school does not do anything to combat racism in the wider world. Taking away the ability to demonstrate how ugly and damaging racism can be in the name of protecting the children is a sure-fire recipe for making sure that they would not be prepared when confronted with the real thing.

Friday Schnauzer Blogging -- ridiculously cozy dog edition

Poor Dodo. What a hard life.
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Sorry about the bad lighting. I didn't want to startle the comfortable dog with a flash.

Stupid stunts

Damn. Roxanne got to the "Soup Nazi" joke before I did. Seriously though. This reminds me a lot of that "affirmative action bake sale" stunt.

In both cases, the participants were pretty loathsome. The authorities freaked out and shut them down on a technicality in the case of the bake sale. I thought this was heavy-handed and shifted the discussion from where it should be, i.e. how the College Republicans were acting like absolute douchbags, to freedom of speech issues. The French are also cracking down on "Identity Soup". I feel more ambivalent about that. Should we chase after the cockroaches with slippers, or let them scurry back into their holes with the disinfecting sunlight of societal disapprobation? (This assumes, of course, that there are widespread disapprobation these types of actions.)

Talking about affirmative-action and members of the dominant caste who like to act like victims instead, Amanda of the Pandagon brings us the charming story of Doug Anglin, who is suing the school for discrimination against boys. On what grounds?
Among Anglin’s allegations: Girls face fewer restrictions from teachers, like being able to wander the hallways without passes, and girls are rewarded for abiding by the rules, while boys’ more rebellious ways are punished.

Hmm. Those who abide by the rules are rewarded, those who don't are punished...shocking, that.

Amanda nails it:
What’s distressing about this is how anti-feminists describe a real gap in the average work ethic between boys and girls, but because of their belief in male superiority, they have to cast boys’ behavior in flattering terms. What should be characterized as slacking off is characterized as charming rebellion. And what would be characterized as an admirable work ethic in boys instead is now obsequieous teacher’s pet behavior in girls. More than one feminist has described how behavior patterns get judged positively or negatively according to the sex of the person performing them–art if a man does it, craft if a woman; chef if a man does it, cook if a woman; stud if a man does it, slut if a woman does it.

I have gone tote-tally crazy

I'm not sure how many of you will be interested in this post. Perhaps just the Power-tool Wife. But hey, it's my blog and I can overshare if I want to.
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Yep, your eyes does not decieve you. That's five home-sewn totebags sitting on a bed of new-ly minted reversable placemats. I'm determined to use up my fabric stash before I leave for Taiwan, see. For the sewing machine-enabled crafties among you, excellent instructions can be found here at Super Eggplant, a great craft blog.

Oh, and I apologize for the title. There is something about hobby sewing that causes good people to make bad puns. Or sew it would seam...

(...O.K. I'll stop now.)

Non-sequitor in Chief

Most of you have probably already seen this by now. Still I found the following amusing, and just the latest in a what I think has been a deterioration in how Bush handles tough questions.
Q: But, sir, don't you want to tell the American people, "Look, as I promised, this White House isn't for sale and I'm not for sale?"

Bush: It's hard for me to say I didn't have pictures with the guy when I did. But I have also had pictures with thousands and thousands of people.
Wha! Not only does the answer show a disturbing lack of forthrightness ("Well, there's too much proof of me and Jack being buddy-buddy for me to pretend I've never met him." is another way of putting what he's saying), it simply does not connect with the question in a meaningful way. There has been other press conferences where Bush's hearing simply goes away when hard questions are asked. John Stewart has some wonderful clips picking up on this.

Talking about Jon Stewart, I feel a twinge of disloyalty for saying this, but I think I enjoy the Colbert Report just as much as his show now.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jane Galt hearts Bush

Out pops the cloven hooves of vulgar libertarianism. Jane Galt reveals of Bush "
Sometimes I really, really like this man."
And what has he done to make her libertarian heart go pitty-pat?
Bush suggests Ford and GM make "a product that's relevant" instead of contemplating a bailout.

In these times, in this climate of hysteria and unnecessary wars and encroaching executive power, Jane Galt praises Bush for having the courage and insight to say that Ford and GM should make better products? That's like complimenting a criminal for his good taste in cloths as you're being robbed -- that is, completely irrelevant and strange. By the way, it's not if Jane has always stuck to the "tough love" line on bailouts.

Well, good!

John Cole moans "When the NY Times reads like MoveOn, the media bashers may have a point." I say "Thanks, John", for pointing out an interesting part of a paper that I don't even read that much anymore. Seriously though. It's not like "the media bashers" are ever going to think the New York Times is anything other than the Devil's broadsheet anyhow. To try and appease them is no way to run a papaer.
Judge Samuel Alito Jr., whose entire history suggests that he holds extreme views about the expansive powers of the presidency and the limited role of Congress, will almost certainly be a Supreme Court justice soon. His elevation will come courtesy of a president whose grandiose vision of his own powers threatens to undermine the nation’s basic philosophy of government — and a Senate that seems eager to cooperate by rolling over and playing dead.

It is hard to imagine a moment when it would be more appropriate for senators to fight for a principle. Even a losing battle would draw the public’s attention to the import of this nomination.


Senate Democrats, who presented a united front against the nomination of Judge Alito in the Judiciary Committee, seem unwilling to risk the public criticism that might come with a filibuster — particularly since there is very little chance it would work. Judge Alito’s supporters would almost certainly be able to muster the 60 senators necessary to put the nomination to a final vote.

A filibuster is a radical tool. It’s easy to see why Democrats are frightened of it. But from our perspective, there are some things far more frightening. One of them is Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court.


Sabl's Law of U.S. Political Rhetoric:

"No argument can succeed in American politics if it contains a subjunctive."

No Ifs and no Buts.

Scandinvania -- now objectively the coolest region in the world

Dang! Ezra and Lindsay are going to Amsterdam curtesy of the Dutch Board of Tourism.

And here I was buttering up the Finns and the Swedes in vain.,,

Diana Eng, Geek designer

One of my guilty pleasures of TV is Project Runway on Bravo. It's kind of like American Idol, but for fashion designers. I do enough sewing (though not fashion sewing) to appreciate how the outfits are put together every week, even if the focus on the show is more on the personality and the histrionics. It pisses me off every week that they keep on the biggest talentless sack of shit because his huge ego and pretentious designs makes for good TV and knock out one of the worthier designers instead.

Alas, Diana Eng was one such victim. I really liked her stuff though, and I hope to hear more of her in the future.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Google with Chinese Characteristics

Maybe Google should change its motto from "Don't be Evil" to "Don't be Evil, unless you really need the market share".
Online search engine leader Google Inc. has agreed to censor its results in China, adhering to the country's free-speech restrictions in return for better access in the Internet's fastest growing market.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company planned to roll out a new version of its search engine bearing China's Web suffix ".cn," on Wednesday. A Chinese-language version of Google's search engine has previously been available through the company's dot-com address in the United States.

By creating a unique address for China, Google hopes to make its search engine more widely available and easier to use in the world's most populous country.

On the other hand, at least Google is fighting the good fight at home in terms of keeping our searches away from the prying eyes of Big Brother. Still, it's just as well to keep some excuses handy in case the the law comes a knockin'.

Rocky roads

Mark Thoma asks "Should the allocation of transportation services - driving on roads - be allocated by the price system?" Now that's a tough question. But if the question is "should we privatize public roads by selling them off to the highest bidder?" then the answer is an emphatic "No!"
Indiana Sells Road for Billions; Prepare for Deluge, by Joe Mysak, Bloomberg: On Monday, Governor Mitch Daniels said a Spanish-Australian consortium had bid $3.85 billion to run the Indiana Toll Road, a 157-mile highway across northern Indiana that runs from the Illinois to Ohio, for 75 years. The legislature still has to approve the proposal...

A Merrill Lynch & Co. report published last July on the subject of U.S. toll road privatization asked whether sales like the Skyway were one-offs, "or do they represent the beginning of a sweeping trend that will spread to other tolled bridges, tunnels, expressways and long-distance toll roads?'' Let's bet on the sweeping trend. The money is just too big to resist...
Privatization done bass ackwards, again. We should realize that the virtue of privatization in any given industry is so that the power of the competitive marketplace will allocate resources more efficiently than the government can. In this case, the highways are already built. The capital investment is already spent. For something like highways, which is pretty much a monopoly good for people who have to use it, the way for private business to get maximum profit is not by providing the best "product", but to extract the most tolls for the least maintainance.

Yes, I bet the state government is salivating at the thought of the billions of dollars rolling in if they put their highways on the block. But businessmen are not stupid. If they are willing to buy, it must mean they think the tolls would yield a good profit. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think toll collection is such a great arena for the entrepreneurial spirit to manifest itself -- one set up booths and collect. If we rule out corruption, then there are only two possible reasons why the state government would let the businessmen in on this sweet deal. (1) The government is politically uncomfortable with bilking the public as much as businesses can, so it is effectively selling the bilking rights for a cut of the take, or (2) like the desperate masses at the payday lenders, they need the money now! I hope I don't need to go into why neither reasons are worthy of our elected officials. This reminds me of nothing more than the municipalities who sold off their sewage systems to private companies in name only simply so that the company could claim "depreciation" of their newly acquired "assets" on their tax returns.

Not that I am against privatization of roads per se. I really think this country would have been better off in the long run if the government didn't get into the road business at all. If all the roads we had had came into existance as profit-making ventures, and abandoned when any profitable route ceases to become profitable, we would not have the same sparse, sprawling development pattern that we see in the U.S., at least not to this extent. Other modes of transportation like rail would become much more competitive if the true cost of roads were borne by each consumer (drivers and homeowners) rather than subsidized through taxes. We might be facing the coming carbon crisis with something like equanimity.

But the historical window of opportunity for allowing things to develop organically has passed. And now development patterns are set and it is much harder to change them without putting a lot of people in distress (to connect the dots and point out the obvious, it is not an option to shut down state-sponsored highway road-building tomorrow). We now have a much harder job of promoting mass-transportation against the advantage automobiles hold of an existing "free" infrastructure that extends everywhere. Our gas-heavy mode of transportation also means a brutal crunch is in the offing.

(Lest I make things sound to dire, there are a heck of a lot we can do to make our current system work out OK. A higher tax on gasoline is regrettably regressive, but it will do a lot to kick start our transition off carbon. Hybrid cars are already selling like hotcakes, and electric cars are on the horizon. But that's a separate question altogether.)

The Dead gets richer

Unbelievable. So now in addition to the ability to put themselves in deep freeze when they shuffle off this mortal coil, the superich now have the ability to leave money to themselves:
According to the Wall Street Journal, 142 people have had their heads or bodies frozen, roughly 1,000 have made similar arrangements, and at least a dozen (the rest are keeping mum, according to participants) have set up "revival trusts." The idea is to accrue wealth and shield it from taxes so you can collect it if scientists figure out how to revive you and keep you alive. More than 20 states permit "dynasty trusts" that can last centuries; lawyers are amending these to let the deceased collect if he returns.

Er. All sane people would agree -- those guys are dead. Yet their money lives on in their name. Money makes money, even if just passively accumulating compound interest. With no expenditures (save the amount needed to keep the freezer going)and no inheritance to break up/pass on the fortune, it will just grow and grow as a share of society's total wealth.

By the way, what's up with those "dynasty trusts" anyhow. Even the name makes them sound like a bad idea.

Which is another way of saying I hope this trend doesn't take off, or one day society will be owned by dead people.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kruelty to Kittens


So simultaneously cute and appalling. Reminds me of this trick that you're supposedly able to inflict on poor, unsuspecting cats -- take a strip of masking tape and apply to cat along the spine. Since the cat uses its back hairs as a kind of sensor to gauge its environment, it will be under the mispprehension that it is stuck under something pressing down on its back. Supposedly, the luckless kitty will skootch along, trying to get down lower and lower to get out from under the "obstruction" and failing miserably, until the tape is removed.

I don't want anyone to do this to their cats, but I am curious to know if it actually works. (Doesn't work on Schnauzers. Don't ask me how I know.)

(HT Jed)

UPDATE: Puddy-tat video is a fake! I'm relieved, yet disappointed.

Its a jungle out there

A few articles to make me glad I'm not dating anymore...

Billionaires for (virginal) Bush -- It's like "Who wants to marry a millionaire" but in China, with more money, no TV show, and virgin contestants only please.

Meet the Dinner Whores
-- Will work for food.

Do you know the way to Man Jose?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Monday Book Blogging: The Worldly Philosophers

Phew. Just finished a few minutes ago. This is exactly why I need Monday book blogging, to kick my ass just enough to read the books I really do want to read but won't get to without it.

The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner

This book was a delight to read, and it filled in a lot of gaps for me. For instance, I've always known that Ricardo muttered darkly about rents, but it wasn't until I read Heilbroner's excellent chapter on Ricardo and Malthus (one of my favorites in the book), that I sympathized with the full tragic weight of his vision -- the laborers labored for enough bread to keep body and soul together, the capitalists find their profits shaved to the bone, the landlords alone collected profits while doing nothing! Nothing! If this man can make Malthus and Ricardo seem compelling, he can animate anything.

Heilbroner's gift is to take a historical figure's biography and personality and turn it into a kind of key to this person's intellectual vision. This kind of approach necessarily means a little bit of flakiness. But Heilbroner's book is an introduction to the great men of economics, not an introduction to economics, and it fulfills its brief wonderfully. Lawrence and Julian both warned me that the way the economics theory was presented by Heilbroner, especially in the chapter on Marx, was not rock solid. But I felt like, of the economists whose work I know, Heilbroner did a good job of pithily summing up each man's philosophy. This is especially valuable for the mess of Victorian economists like Henry George and Alfred Marshall that I was only dimly aware of until I read this book.

I think I would be selling The Worldly Philosophers short though, if I reduce it down to a series of colorful portraits. Heilbroner does a really good job of providing context, so that we can judge the ideas of the economists not through the lens of our current economy, but as products of their times and their economy. Ultimately, even as economists struggle more and more to establish legitimacy for their subject as a science, to be more quantitative and more universal, the study of economics is bound by historical, social and political factors that are ever changeable. Commenting on the failures of economists throughout the ages to correctly prognostigate beyond the immediate future, Heilbroner said (315-316):
Smith's vision, which was a spacious one, did not extend beyond his century into the next, for The Wealth of Nations holds not the slightest hint of the industrial capitalism that was to replace the pin factory with the steel mill. Ricardo's remarkable model of an economy running up against the barriers of agricultural fertility did not envisage the England of Alfred Marshall's time, fifty years into the future, in which agricultural rents would be a minor element in the economy. By the time of Mill's death in 1870, it was already abundantly clear that his imagined stationary state was only a figment. Marx's prognosis was more resistive to the erosion of events, but 50 years after his death one could see in the Great Depression both the confirmation of his scenario and its disconfirmation in the first experiments with a state supported economy. Keynes lived almost long enough to discover that buttressed capitalism would develop its own dysfunctions, inflation prominent among them.
This idea of economics as a bounded science is interesting to me. Obviously, the prevailing trend towards quantitative analysis have been bearing much fruit and we are unlikely to go back to the kind of grand philosophizing Heilbroner describes, but it is well alway to remember how much of economics is predicated on factors that defy quantification.

Competition time!

A few of you monkeys nominated me for the "Best New Blog" catagory Koufax. Seeing the crazy competition, I don't think I would bet on me. But I am glad that I made Norbizness and Roxanne's short(er) lists.

Speaking of competitions, I don't know if my 11th hour submission to Matt Holt's "solve the healthcare crisis in 250 words or less" competition made it before the cutoff or not. Either way, it's amazing how a ridiculously short word-limit sharpens the mind on a byzantine subject. Here's my submission, which actually clocks in substantially under 250 words:

Our first order of business is to separate the public from the private. Our inability to face up to the inevitability of a single-payer health care system has resulted in a weak and and inefficient crazy quilt of care. We bribe employers with tax breaks to provide healthcare for their employee, because doing so directly would be considered "socialized medicine". Even when we are openly subsidizing the purchase of prescription drugs, we manage rope in private companies to "provide" the plan, adding an unnecessary layer of overhead, rent-seeking, and confusion simply to provide a little free-market lipstick on the pig.

What's public should be public. If we pull together all the taxpayer's dollars subsidizing healthcare in different ways, we have enough to eke out a bare-bones single-payer plan the covers everyone. Only non-elective procedures will be covered. Copays should be applied strategically to discourage overuse. End of life care should focus on comfort and dignity rather than life-prolongment. What's private should be private. Not a red cent of subsidy for medical care outside of the public system. Let providers freely compete to lower their costs and improve their standard of care.

To expand on this last point a little bit: I am a big believer in the power of the free market AND the necessity of government interventions to produce the optimal social outcome somtimes. There are pros and cons to both privatization and state-run institutions, but what exists in the awkward interstice between the two is almost always a non-optimal program. Enough have been written (and very eloquently too) about how the insertion of private interests have made programs like the medicare prescription drug coverage the nightmare that it is, so I won't go into it. What is less often recognized is how universal healthcare insurance can unleash the free-market potential of the private market in healthcare. If my plan as outlined above is enacted, the market for private health insurance will effectively evaporate under the triple pressure of (a) competing with free universal healthcare, (b) withdraw of government subsidy and (c) well-understood adverse selection problems. Every procedure would now be an out of pocket expense, thus transforming consumer choice. The doctors should be happy -- they will never have to fill out another insurance claim form again.

And believe me, the consumers will be happy. Picking an HMO or health care plan is a little like picking a suitor -- you look through a lot of publicity material that might or might not relate to the actual experience after you commit, you weigh up a lot of pros and cons dealing with future events beyond your control, and by the time you realize you've picked a bum steer it's usually too late. In the case where your employer picks the service for you, it's more like an arranged marriage. But when you're not tied to a plan, the experience of buying medical care becomes more like the market for home electronics or beanie babies or lawn furniture or anything else -- the power is in the hand of the consumer and producers make money by coming up with the best product, not by playing games. Heck, they even have to work twice as hard because in many cases (all non-elective procedures), they will have to provide care good enough to lure patients away from the public system, which is providing it for free, or with very low copays.

Just my two cents. Let me know what y'all think.

So damned predictable...

Via Dadahead, I see that anti-American, pro-Al Qaida feelings are surging throughout Pakistan in the wake of the airstrike that was supposed to kill Zawahiri. It's not even worth saying "I told you so" since you hardly need a fucking crystal ball to predict that result. Treat a people like their lives have no value compare to your national interests, and they are going to hate you, with good reason. What's more, once they start hating you, they will more often than not start loving your enemy, even the ones that are big bags of shit.

Thus was reversed the good we did
when America generously helped the Pakistanis in the wake of the terrible earthquake.

All so damned predictable. We'll ask "Why do they hate us?" It must be for our freedom.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hatin' on Joe Klein

David Sirota is not so much hatin' on Joe Klein as opening a whole can of haterade. And you know, after reading his posts, you gotta agree that Klein had it coming.

Brad DeLong, fresh from baying for the blood of Howell, joins in the melee.

Justice for Laurel Hester

Due to the large amount of publicity generated by her case, the freeholders caved and will grant death benefits to Laurel Hester's partner when she goes. This is a triumph for Hester and her fighting spirit, and for all those who stood behind her and unloaded the barrage of emails and phonecalls and threats of boycotts on the Ocean County freeholders.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Sam Beaumont is fighting a lawsuit. He had literally lost the ranch along with everything else when the partner he raised two kids with died without a will. And now the cousins who got his partner's property have the indecency to sue Beaumont for back rent for the years he lived in his home.

In the fight for gay marriage, we need to focus on real people like Laurel Hester and Sam Beaumont. This is not some "how many angels on a head of a pin" question -- real people, good people are suffering because of our refusal to recognize their relationship. If a reality TV show can change minds through familiarizing and humanizing gay couples, surely the progressive movement can too.

Here human, human, human...

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Sure you love your kitty. But do you ever wonder why?

(HT Dadahead for the great picture)

In the Abramoffing

How superbly satisfying it was to watch the left-blogisphere put the screws to Deborah Howell. We often whine asking why it is that the same timid press that treats the Republicans with kid gloves, bending over backwards to achieve "fairness and balance" turn around to sieze upon meaningless faux-pas like the Dean Scream or Hilary's "plantation" remark to rake the Democrats over the coals. Do you know why? It's because we've not been vociferous complainers like the Republicans with their spurious charge of "liberal bias". The press have gotten conditioned to the fact that disrespect towards Republicans will unleash a firestorm in their general direction, while you can freely compare Michael Moore with Osama bin Ladin without too much of a backlash.

Well, as the usually mild-mannered Professor DeLong demonstrated, we can unleash a firestorm too, and we will, if the the press continues on its cowardly course of reaching for a false "balance" on the Abramoff scandal. An admission has been forced from Howell that the Abramoff scandal is indeed a Republican scandal. The response was so overwhelmingly negative that they made the terrible move of shutting down their comments on this issue, which I'm sure went over well with the blogger crowd they've been trying to court with their Technorati collaboration. Mike the Mad Biologist notes the interesting fact that one of the scathing comments that was pulled was signed "Karen Marriott" in which she informed the Post that "In order to avoid further loss, I have instructed my family's trust to end what has been a long and profitable relationship, and to take appropriate steps to eliminate our WPO holdings." A shareholder is pissed off. And from the sounds of it, not a twopenny one.

Better and better. It seems like there are pictures of Bush and Abramoff all chummy-like out there. The holder is keeping them back to encourage higher bidding, but I'm sure they'll see the light of day soon enough. You don't get to be a Pioneer without getting to press some flesh with the head puppet himself.

Let us now praise friendly geeks

I consider myself a kind of untergeek, I cheerfully acknowledge my suckitude at all things tech, but I still spend most of my time on the computer and I like new things if I can get them to work. Being eager and timid in equal measures, there's nothing I like better than a helping hand from a friendly geek, assuring me that "this is user friendly. You can do eet!" So, a shoutout to KF Monkey for his "geek translator" post, which recommends several open-source alternatives for expensive microsoft office products. And Faisal for explaining to me via email what "graphic bandwidth" means very patiently. Also, thanks to my buddy Lawrence for alerting me about technorati seems a little bit bit of a bother for us blogger users to participate, but I'm glad that I at least know what they are now. Without the kind of tech-savvy guys (and gals) who take the time to explain how things work to mere mortals like me, I'd probably still be in a cave somewhere, browsing with Internet Explorer and using the ugly green blogger template I chose in a fit of madness.

And I can't praise the geeks without also giving dues to the companies whose stuff I use and who has never yet seen a dime of filthy lucre from me. Omnigraffle from Omnigroup is a software I use all the time in the limited trial version to organize information and images in an effective, eye-catching manner. In fact, I harbor a secret ambitions to write an entire cookbook in Omnigraffle format, though I'll definitely go pro if I do that. Backpack is a really effective web-based program for organizing information, lists, links and such. I set up my browser homepage to be my backpack to-do list so that I can't avoid it. On the web design front, Nvu has taken the fear and loathing out of making websites for me. So, after all this blogging, I might finally go back and set up the humble homepage I've always wanted. A page for the schnauzer dog pictures, a page for my travelogs, someplace more "permanent" to put the pieces of writing that I like...

So, would I ever buck up and become more proactive about my computer knowledge and eventually become a geek myself? I doubt it. If an aptitude for this stuff have not emerge by my age, it probably isn't ever going to do so. Besides, I kind of like my place in the pack -- well back from the bleeding edge, but not so technophobic that I cling too long to the old, outmoded ways of doing things.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Take that, Behe!

I did a little happy dance inside when I saw this article. It describes how modern ears evolved from the gills of ancient lobe-finned fish. It was an idea I'd run across in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, and this new discovery seems to tie it up quite neatly. It's a good example of how science works: you observe a certain aspect of the world around you, formulate a hypothesis to explain that aspect that is consistent with the available data, then seek out additional evidence which could either confirm or invalidate that hypothesis.

It also helps knock down a bit of bad science. The modern creationist movement ( they call it "Intelligent Design" now) seems to love the idea of irreducible complexity; that is, biological systems which would cease to function if deprived of one of several substructures. The favorite is the eye, though many other examples exist. The odds, they assert, that each aspect of these subsystems emerging at the same time, in the right configuration to do their job are astronomically remote.

That is true. And that's why no one is proposing that that's what happens. The bulwark of irreducible complexity is exposed as a house of cards without strawmen to defend it. The panderichthys fossil is an elegant demonstration of what is often referred to as "scaffolding" or "cooption". That's when, in the course of evolutionary diversification, certain bits of biology might make incidental improvements on a certain system. A biological system which becomes useless or even a liability will be selected against, but parts of that system might hang around if they improve on another useful function. In this case, little bones from the jaw drift away, and while early tetrapods learn to breathe through lungs instead of gills, the bones remain to set the stage for something completely different.

No assembly required.

Battlestar Galactica Blogging

Rob Farley at Lawyers Guns and Money has an impressive series of posts on the excellent 'Sci-fi channel series Battlestar Galactica. Like me, though, he was seriously underwhelmed by yesterday's episode. I don't want to spoilerize, and I'm too clueless to put the post after the "jump", so I've put what I had to say in the comments.

Thumbs up, thumbs down

What a lazy blogger I am. Here are the things I meant to blog about, but never did. Well, here's the quick and dirty ten cent versions. Good thing pandas have thumbs.

The Non-Unionized Union
Great idea. Saying that labor can only use their bargaining powers in huge, monolithic blocks is like restricting businesses to operate only in GM-sized cooperations. Non-union collective action cleverly sidesteps the usual problem of getting enough workers to join a workplace before it can become a union shop. Also, in this union-busting climate, nimble action is good. Of course, I have to wonder what the limits of this kind of thing is, but let's take it as far as it can go first.

The Drop-in Daycare
This one sounds like a no-brainer. The IKEA store in Germany is having trouble with parents using their in-store nursery crech while they're not actually shoppint at IKEA. Bitch PhD responds -- why don't public drop-in day care centers exist? Heck, why don't private drop-in day care centers exist? The demand is obviously there. Ezra Klein wonders if the liabilities might be scaring off parents. I say make'em sign a waiver if they want to use the services -- trust me, they will.

The Dutch bans Burqas

Personally speaking, Burqas freak me out. It's a whole garment designed to render women invisible, even as they go about their daily business. This is too extreme to be written off under "cultural differences" -- like foot-binding, I can't see burqas as anything but detestable anti-woman practise incompatable with gender equality. However, I still think the Dutch ban is misguided -- there are lots of practices that we might disapprove of as a society which should not be banned. An easily foreseeable consequence to banning the burqa would be to make muslim women from traditional families effectively housebound -- less likely to interact outside of her family, less likely to absorb newer and frankly healthier values.

I understand that the dutch are frightened of an unassimulated ethnic enclave forming, but they should have more faith in the strength and desirability of their own system. I'm sure school is already mandatory for all children. They should also make sure girls are not coerced into marriage. One can only hope that the next generation will be different.

Felicity Huffman

Watch the video. You'll know what I'm talking about.
It's so weird and strangely exhilarating to see somebody answer a flaky celebrity question with honesty and gumption.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Friday Schnauzer Blogging: Always in the way edition

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What is it about schnauzer dogs and their uncanny ability to worm themselves in the way when the foot of the bed is just as good?

Hurt, blame and punishment

This post by Walker of Choosing Hope is very thoughtful and powerful.

This should be obvious, but it seems that some folks just don't get it.

The desire to find and place blame after tragedy is certainly understandable. The assignment of blame where it exists is often desirable. But the existence of tragedy does not mean there is always blame to be found, and when there is blame the extent of culpability is not proportional to the enormity of the tragedy.

There is an instinct among many that the size of the punishment should be proportional to the size of the hurt. But such a standard is clearly unjust. This is easiest to see if we look at the mistakes of children. A two-year-old might knock over a candle leading to an awful tragedy, but we don't blame the child. We might blame adults present for allowing the dangerous situation to exist, but not in proportionality to the awful result. In contrast, an heir to a fortune who is caught attempting the murder of his benefactor is guilty of an imprisonable crime even if no one is actually hurt. He's also likely to lose his inheritance in short order.

So why is it that those of us who insist on evaluating the context of the situation and the background of the perpetrator in determining the severity of a punishment are so often mocked as being soft on crime. For some people it seems, that once ANY culpability is established, then the extent of the punishment should be proportional to the pain of the victim. If we decline to blame the two-year-old at all, then the extent of the blame and hence the severity of the punishment should also depend on the intent and future dangerousness of the perpetrator. This is acknowledged in our laws in many ways, such as the concept of pre-meditation for defining murder in the first degree. The victim of the un-premeditated murder is just as dead, but the intent of the perpetrator should be paramount in setting their punishment. It's often bothered me that there is any legal difference between murder and attempted murder. Perhaps the failed murderer is seen as less dangerous because they are less likely to succeed in the future. I also suppose our jails would be overcrowded fast if driving drunk became the equivalent of vehicular homicide.

But the issue at hand is the growing vindictiveness promoted by sensationalist local reporting which goads the public into a desire for vengeance. I expect juries to use their common sense, but sometimes it is lacking, and sometimes tragically so. This thread is to be continued, but in the meantime read this by Laura Denyes, and explain to me what was going on in the heads of the jurors to convict Cory Maye of any crime, much less sentence him to death.

Cost benefit analysis, properly understood

I piled the scorn on Stephen Landsburg for his vile column justifying pulling the plug on Tirhas Habtegiris here, but I didn't offer much in the way of analysis. Well, Thomas Frank basically wrote what I would have if I were a whole lotta smarter.
Mr. Landsburg completely ignores moral emotions like sympathy and empathy. As economists since Adam Smith have recognized, economic judgments are often tempered by these emotions. The upshot is that large numbers of people benefit when a patient in imminent mortal danger receives treatment. Had the opportunity presented itself, many would have eagerly contributed to Ms. Habtegiris's care. But organizing an endless series of individual private fund-raisers for such cases is impractical. So, we empower government to step in when the need arises.

Mr. Landsburg's argument finesses the important distinction between a "statistical life" and an "identified life." The concepts were introduced by the economist Thomas C. Schelling, who observed the apparent paradox that communities often spend millions of dollars to save the life of a known victim - someone trapped in a mine, for example - yet are often unwilling to spend even $200,000 on a highway guardrail that would save an average of one life each year.

This disparity is not economically irrational, Mr. Schelling insisted, because the community values what it is buying so differently in the two cases. It is one thing to risk one's own life in an unlikely automobile accident, but quite another to abandon a known victim in distress.

By offering a transparently unsound economic argument in defense of the Habtegiris decision, Mr. Landsburg unwittingly empowers those who wrongly insist that costs and benefits have no legitimate role in policy decisions about health and safety. Reducing the small risks we face every day is expensive. The same money could be spent instead on other pressing needs. We cannot think intelligently about these decisions without weighing the relevant costs and benefits.

But using cost-benefit analysis does not make one a moral monster. In the wealthiest nation on earth, a genuine cost-benefit test would never dictate unplugging a fully conscious, responsive patient from life support against her objections. Mr. Landsburg's argument to the contrary is wrongheaded, not just morally, but also economically.

It's "Read The Whole Thing" material. Especially if you are not familiar with the facts of the Habtegiris case. People often think that there is a dichotomy between conventional morality and cost-benefit analysis because crude, first-order cost-benefit analysis often contradicts what we hold deeply to be true. But when you refine the cost-benefit analysis, you will often find that the contradictions resolve themselves. I believe this is true for utilitarianism as well. We should learn to see those "analytic" approaches to moral problems as another tool in helping us make decisions. Much like a map and a compass are both tools to help us get around. We don't have to choose one over the other -- they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Follow the money

Again, I am amazed by Krugman's ability to explain it all so succinctly and well.

[T]his was a drug bill written by and for lobbyists. Consider the career trajectories of the two men who played the most important role in ... the Medicare legislation. Thomas Scully was a hospital industry lobbyist before President Bush appointed him to run Medicare. ... Mr. Scully had good reasons not to let anything stand in the way of the drug bill. He had received a special ethics waiver from his superiors allowing him to negotiate for future jobs with lobbying and investment firms - firms that had a strong financial stake in the form of the bill - while still in public office. He left public service, if that's what it was, almost as soon as the bill was passed, and is once again a lobbyist, now for drug companies.

Meanwhile, Representative Billy Tauzin, the bill's point man on Capitol Hill, quickly left Congress once the bill was passed to become president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the powerful drug industry lobby. Surely both men's decisions while in office were influenced by the desire to please their potential future employers. And that undue influence explains why the drug legislation is such a mess.

Read more here.

Yet another Republican scandal

Never underestimate the value of brazeness in this shallow media culture. The Republicans are brazen enough to claim that Jack Abramoff is a bi-partisan scandal. It's a transparent pack of lies that doesn't stand up to the most rudimentary scrutiny, of course. But spoken with enough shameless conviction, it'll fly on Hardball.

How can the Democratic party stop dithering and start making sure the Republicans are paying for their heinous transgressions? Obviously, they need to pull Mike the Mad Biologist out of his lab to stratagize for them. Oh wait...Mike just put everything they need to know in a short blogpost:
It now appears that Congressional staffers–check that–Republican Congressional staffers were leaking inside political information to day traders, who would use knowledge of impending legislation (or the lack thereof) to pick stocks. I have no idea if this is legal or not, but it is reprehensible (and I find it hard to believe that the staffers did it for free).

Sadly, the Democrats are probably going to screw this one up just like every other Republican scandal. Here's two very simple rules that they won't follow:
  1. "It's wrong." When Tweety Matthews or anyone else gets into legalisms, cut them off, fix them with a level stare, and say, "It's wrong. They're public servants, and it's wrong." And that's all you say, over and over again.
  2. Do not propose legislation to fix this (digby discusses this in reference to another Republican scandal–so many scandals...). This is the Republicans' mess. It's their people and their problem. Don't throw them a lifeline by suggesting that there's something wrong with the political system: this is solely another example of Republican moral degeneracy (see "It's wrong"). For the love of the Intelligent Designer, can we please stop wiping the Republican Party's ass when it shits itself?
Well, it's back to the lab for Mike. His work here is done.

Everything bad is good for you watch: Caffeine

Oh man, did this article ever make my day. All the time I thought I was guiltily feeding an insidious habit, I was actually just making myself more cheerful, less susceptable to parkinsons and colon cancer, making my teeth more resistant to decay, cutting my risk of diabetes and improving my athletic performance.

Meet the new wonderdrug -- it's our old friend caffeine!

Previously in Everything bad is good for you watch: Pizza and alcohol

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Modern day hermits

What a sad, disturbing phenomenon.
Like Takeshi and Shuichi, Y.S. suffered from a problem known in Japan as hikikomori, which translates as "withdrawal" and refers to a person sequestered in his room for six months or longer with no social life beyond his home. (The word is a noun that describes both the problem and the person suffering from it and is also an adjective, like "alcoholic.") Some hikikomori do occasionally emerge from their rooms for meals with their parents, late-night runs to convenience stores or, in Takeshi's case, once-a-month trips to buy CD's. And though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.[snip]

Fujiwara says that urban Japanese parents lead increasingly isolated lives - removed from the extended family and tight-knit communities of previous generations - and simply don't know how to teach their children to communicate and negotiate relationships with peers.

In other societies the response from many youths would be different. If they didn't fit into the mainstream, they might join a gang or become a Goth or be part of some other subculture. But in Japan, where uniformity is still prized and reputations and outward appearances are paramount, rebellion comes in muted forms, like hikikomori. Any urge a hikikomori might have to venture into the world to have a romantic relationship or sex, for instance, is overridden by his self-loathing and the need to shut his door so that his failures, real or perceived, will be cloaked from the world. "Japanese young people are considered the safest in the world because the crime rate is so low," Saito said. "But I think it's related to the emotional state of people. In every country, young people have adjustment disorders. In Western culture, people are homeless or drug addicts. In Japan, it's apathy problems like hikikomori." [snip]

"I don't have anything I want to do," he said. "That's why I'm in this trouble. I missed the chance. I was in graduate school while most people were getting jobs. If I'd gone to work it would have been good."

Hiroshi didn't say why working would have been better or why it was too late at age 26 to start a career. He said only that he wouldn't leave the house "until I know exactly what I want to do." It was typical hikikomori thinking: better to stay in your room than risk venturing into the world and failing.

Take your hipster dollars elsewhere

Not only is Richard Haynes, head of Urban Outfitters taking the money he made selling you ironic fridge magnets and other faux-vintage tchotchki and making donations to Rick Santorum, his company has some seriously ethically shoddy practices when it comes to ripping off other people's designs. Well, Johnny Cupcake is one small designer who's not going to just sit back and take it. Right on, brother.

Passion under wraps

Imams say the darndest things:
A curious religious debate is raging in Egypt. The question is: should you keep your clothes on when having sex?

It began when Dr Rashad Khalil, an expert on Islamic law from al-Azhar university in Cairo warned that being completely naked during intercourse invalidates a marriage. His ruling was promptly dismissed by other scholars, including one who argued that "anything that can bring spouses closer to each other" should be permitted.

Another religious scholar suggested it was OK for married couples to see each other naked as long as they don't look at the genitals. To avoid problems in that area, he recommended having sex under a blanket.

Apart from visible naked sex, masturbation is also considered a deviant practice by many Muslim clerics, since we all know it makes you blind, damages your spine and weakens the "cerebral glands". Oh, and be very careful to only administer the kiss of life with "neither lust nor pleasure".

Surprisingly, most Muslim scholars fall to the left of the Catholic church on the contraception question. It's an "iffy" rather than a "no-no". Oh, and for Shias, no sex with prostitutes for you...unless you get a "temporary marriage" first.

Obviously that's why Allah made Vegas.

(Via Clicked)

Boys will be boys?

Lindsay has a very perceptive response to Richard Whitmire's New Republic article on the performance gap between boys and girls at school:
When a gender gap that favors boys, the proposed solutions generally involve changing girls to meet the prevailing ideal. This is usually the most sensible way to approach the problem. Girls are underperforming in math and science? Well, then we should keep up the emphasis on math and science for everyone and push girls harder.

By contrast, when a gender gap favors females, people are more likely to address the discrepancy by challenging the evaluation criteria. American public school curricula have come to place more emphasis on reading comprehension and other verbal abilities. Some educators argue that this shift has placed male students at a systematic disadvantage because girls tend to be better readers and writers than boys. Note that schools deliberately increased the amount of reading and writing in the curriculum because they thought that it these skills were intrinsically valuable for all students.
Exactly. I would also like to add that when girls underperform in maths and sciences, it is much more likely for people to respond by shrugging their shoulders and concluding that that's the way things are. But when boys fall behind, everybody agrees that we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

It's troubling to me that boys are falling behind in reading and writing, just as it is troubling to me that girls are still behind in maths and sciences. However, in both cases, I think it is very important not approach the problem in such a way as to put too much emphasis on the difference between the sexes, which are after all dwarfed by the difference in achievement between individuals. For example, Richard Whitmire suggests introducing comic books formats to present class material. This could be a good idea when implimented in such a way as to help all learners who are more visual engage with the material, but very bad if seen as a way of putting the thumbs on scales in the boys' favor by, say, introducing Batman comics to the English classroom.

Michael Ledeen has egg on his face

In addition to his perennually amusing "Trusted Lieutenant Watch", The Cunning Realist has now started a "Trusted Sources Watch". Stay tuned:
And, according to Iranians I trust, Osama bin Laden finally departed this world in mid-December. The al Qaeda leader died of kidney failure and was buried in Iran, where he had spent most of his time since the destruction of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Michael Ledeen, 1/9/2006

A new audiotaped message purported to be from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned Americans that plans for attacks in the United States were already under way.

"We have seen explosions in many European countries. As for similar operations taking place in America, it's only a question of time. They are under way, and you will hear about them soon," said the message, which was aired on Arabic-language network Al-Jazeera Thursday.

CNN, 1/19/2006

So much for the power of positive thinking.