Over at Slate, William Saletan shows once again why he's not to be taken seriously.
In his breathless, tough-guy prose, he lays out why we should all be happy to let TSA do full-body scans. Terrorists can hide bombs anywhere! We're not checking people's crotches, so that's what they'll do! Won't someone think of the children? This is keeping us safe! OK, sure, the TSA said they wouldn't use this on everyone and they've already shown that to be a lie, but hey, the TSA is keeping us safe! It's for our own good! If you're one of those mamby-pamby privacy types, then you just don't understand what a scary dangerous world it is, like tough-guy Saletan!
Okay, so I'm paraphrasing. A bit.
Do the numbers. Fly 20 times a year and your chances of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is about the same as getting hit by lightning that year. Fly daily for the rest of your life, and the risk goes up to almost a tenth of one percent. The marginal utility of forcing everyone to be scanned simply isn't worth it. (There's also the problem of false positives, which Saletan, conveniently, disregards, simply assuming 100% accuracy and 100% discrimination on the part of the technology and the operators.)
The Detroit incident doesn't show the failure of the scanners, it shows the failure of intelligence coordination. If they're already at the airport with explosives, it's already too late. This is theater, not security. But it's easier to install scanners and make it look like you're doing something than it is to actually do something. Particularly when it's something as hard to do and to get right as security. But the full-body scanners are analogous to searching for lost keys by looking under the streetlight because the light's better there.
Yes, there are bad people who want to do us harm. But Saletan has let himself be terrorized (which is, after all, the point of terrorism) into falling for the Yes, Minister fallacy: We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this. Instead of recognizing that there are risks, we have to bear them, such is life, he's cowering under the bed and begging TSA to make him feel secure, whether there's any basis for that feeling in reality or not.
Road accidents kill almost 40,000 people per year. That's about one 9/11 per month. But we haven't declared a "war on cars."
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Over at Slate, William Saletan shows once again why he's not to be taken seriously.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Megan McArdle on ownership vs renting a house:
For a long time, I didn't care so much about this. I liked the freedom renting gave me. But once you're committed to a city, and another person, that freedom starts looking overrated.Most of her column is spot-on, and matches with my own experience.. For years I said that owning a house may be part of the American Dream, but isn't part of my dream, and happily rented. And then at some point, something changed. I can't point to a specific incident that pushed me over the edge, though the loud upstairs neighbors certainly helped. Likewise the hassles to get minor stuff fixed that was more important to me than to the landlord, and the inability to make serious modifications, no matter how heartily sick I was of white walls and beige carpet.
And of course I have no idea what Ms. McArdle's thought processes are, or were. But in my case, it wasn't that the freedom to pick up and move at the end of my lease was suddenly overrated; it was that it was no longer as salient. It had been an important factor in my renting for quite a while, but my situation changed; and with those changes, other factors came to the fore as higher priorities. I hadn't been mistaken in valuing that freedom before; but it was no longer as important as it had been.
I resisted the urge to jump in during the boom--running out to buy something because the price has been skyrocketing lately doesn't strike me as too smart--and besides, it took a while to get my finances in order for the down payment and so forth. And I didn't see it as an investment; if it turns into that, great, but mostly it's for a place to live. (Taxes & insurance push the cost up, but the payment on just my note is lower than I was paying in monthly rent.)
And another advantage of owning: my apartment had electric heat, because electric furnaces are cheap to buy & maintain. Which is what the landlord is looking for, since the electric bill is my problem. My utility costs have dropped.
I'm thinking about the home-ownership thing a lot lately, as I just paid my first round of property taxes and ordered some things online for the house. Are there hidden costs? Of course. There are also hidden benefits--I understand the economic argument against the mortgage interest deduction, and broadly agree with it, but as long as it's on the books I'm going to take it all the same.
[and reading back through, this post is particularly living up to the "random musings" title... oh well, i'm on semester break, I'm taking the morning off before going in & working on next semester's coursework.]
Monday, December 28, 2009
Nate Silver notes that from October 1999 through September 2009 there has been one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 airplane departures.
Furthermore, "the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning."
With a large tip of the hat to Paddy at The Political Carnival.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting follow-up by Julian Sanchez on the politics of resentment. Sanchez is making the point that the resentment isn't a psychological diagnosis, and isn't necessarily a code for something else, that the internet has allowed previously marginalized groups to suddenly find each other and organize in a way they couldn't before. But I think the bit Sullivan excerpts isn't the most relevant point in the article; it's this one:
People have read racial undertones into the rallying cry “I want my country back!” and its cognates—probably because this is a strange way to present opposition to a policy agenda, however misguided you might find it. The instinct is right, but I think the conclusion is wrong: Race—and communism, as Tim Curry would remind us—is another red herring. What we’re seeing is the natural sentiment of people who think of themselves as quintessentially American looking at an American popular and public culture that presents them as marginal.
Yes. That's the biggest reason why so much of the politics of the right currently involves resentment of so-called elites, exclusion by "the mainstream media" (um, hello, FOX gets higher ratings than CNN or MSNBC), and an insistence that "real Americans" agree with them--and by implication, anyone who doesn't, therefore isn't a real American.
I don't see things improving for at least another full election cycle. The GOP right is currently where the Democratic left was after Reagan shellacked them--dazed, confused, out of ideas, and not quite believing that the old truths aren't holding anymore. The craziness has to burn itself out, and the remainder has to grow up.
And the sooner, the better. Yes, I'm an unabashed lefty partisan, but a healthy democracy needs a healthy opposition party, and today's GOP isn't it. They've adopted the tactics of the old left--identity politics, a political catechism that must be accepted without question, a total unwillingness to consider any other view as being anything other than hopelessly corrupt--and charged it up on tribal identification, with a good healthy dose of religious fervor and nativism. And, like the old left, have become more concerned with all of the above than the realities of governing or of addressing the problems in front of us today, rather than the problems of 30 years ago. (1980's Democrats couldn't quite grasp the idea that the heyday of the civil rights movement and the Great Society were over; today's GOP wants to apply Regan's platform from 30 years ago to today's problems.)
But the GOP seems short of grown-ups at the moment; it's all tribal politics and red meat for the base. If it's got to burn out before it starts to change, then run, Sarah, run!
Edit/addendum: incredibly minor nit-pick. Tim Curry would remind us that it's socialism that's the red herring.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
I hadn't particularly followed or got too worked up about the Tiger Woods hype because we've seen so much of it before. Wealthy famous athlete apparently starts to believe his own "you can do anything" routine, steps out on his wife one or more times, scandal erupts when it's discovered, and everyone is shocked and appalled someone they'd made a hero turned out to be human.
(I'm not going to use the phrase role model because unless we're talking about how to fulfill the role of pro golfer, Tiger wasn't modeling any particular role... He's an extremely talented athlete, and paid endorser for several products. That doesn't mean he's actually an expert on razor blades or shaving technology, of course, just that he is paid to speak on behalf of Gillette products, and presumably uses the products he endorses. But there's no other role-modeling, or moral example, involved.)
Conor Friesdersdorf over at the Daily Dish has a thoughtful post up about what it all means and why the people screaming that Tiger gave up any claim to privacy when he stepped in front of a camera are wrong.
Let the man, and his family, have some space. If he's willing to take time off from golf, meaning he's giving up tournament income and putting his endorsement income at risk--Gillette has already cut him back--to deal with his family and the pain he's caused them, I certainly can't fault him. People freaking out about this need to take a deep breath. As Conor points out, he doesn't owe us anything beyond using the products he's endorsing. He's made some bad relationship choices, and things have come home to roost. He's taking time to deal with it, and doesn't want a media circus in the middle of it.
Good for him.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
So it turns out that the CEO of Blackwater (now Xe), the biggest suppliers of mercenaries, er, private security forces, to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, claims to have been involved in espionage operations, assassination squads, getting personnel into and out of areas where US personnel were technically not supposed to be, and various other things of questionable morality and legality.
Just one question.
Given Blackwater's track record, why is everyone pretending to be surprised by this?
His revelation that he's planning on teaching high school... now that's a surprise. And the source of an abundance of snark, but I'll save that for another day.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Today's stumbled-across-and-wish-I-hadn't. You see, slavery is only bad because humans corrupted it, but Biblical slavery was entirely beneficial and not at all exploitive...
This is what happens when your standard for rationality becomes "does it support a self-contradictory bronze age text."
And can we put to rest once and for all that the correlation between religion and morality is statistically significant?
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Cleaning some stuff up, realized I hadn't made this available... which rather defeats the purpose, now doesn't it?
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Thursday, November 5, 2009
A blogger at DKos nails it.
"Then at one o'clock you're heading out to the county jail to marry Carr the crack addict mother of eight and Blankenship the axe murderer before they send him up to maximum security for a hundred years. Then you've got Welch and Nutt at two-thirty. He's the neo-nazi anarchist and she's the former nun who got booted for schtupping sixteen priests, two bishops and a cardinal."Go read the whole thing, it's worth it.
"Great. As long as they love each other..."
"Then at two you're joining Kettlebaum the porn addict and Ganz the kitten-drowner, and at three you'll unite Smith the deadbeat dad and Browlowski, who chain smokes in front of her kids."
"And then the gay couple at four, right?"
"Oh, no, sir! That's against the law. They're too unstable for marriage..."
[H/T: Louise, at Pam's]
Friday, October 30, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
...that for some, religion is used as a tool to serve neo-con/GOP-style political ends, we present:
The Conservatising the Bible Project.
Here's the whole thing. Read it if you dare.
Wow. Just... wow. But it's nice to see the reversal of priorities being presented in such an up-front manner.
(H/T: Andrew Sullivan.)
Monday, September 14, 2009
I snark occasionally about Andrew Sullivan, but when he's right, he's right:
The protestors keep saying that they want their country back. Sorry, my fellow small-governmenters, but this country is a democracy, and you didn't lose your country, you just lost an election. You had your chance for eight years. You blew it, and you lost. What Obama is doing is what he was elected to do. The principled response is not a massive, extremist-riddled hissy fit a few months in, but a constructive set of proposals to build on universal care for a more market-friendly and cost-conscious system in the future. You have to win some political credibility for that; and then you have to beat the man you lost so badly to last year. That's the civil and civilized way forward for the right. It also seems, alas, to be the one they are currently refusing to take.
Friday, September 11, 2009
The British government has issued an apology for its treatment (and hounding to the point of suicide) of Alan Turing, rightly regarded as the father of computer science. His leadership of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park shortened WWII by at least 2 years--at one point, Churchill was reading field reports from Wermacht officers before Hitler was. He demonstrated that the Halting Problem was undecidable; that is, it has no general solution applying to all programs. When he was burglarized and blackmailed by an ex-lover, he reported it to the police...and found himself on trial for gross indecency, his security clearance revoked (and thus his career in cryptography destroyed), his career over, forced to undergo estrogen treatments, which were known to have numerous side effects, including depression. He committed suicide at age 41.
Turing, I suspect, would have been appalled at the idea of being any sort of martyr for gay rights. And yet his career and life were cut short, and the world deprived of at least 20 years of a brilliant researcher, because of homophobia.
It's nice to see the British government recognizing, finally, some of the injustice that it perpetrated and condoned for so long.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Once again, a solid speech.
Once again, I'm left wondering whether a speech is enough.
He presented a strong moral case for reform, using language that wouldn't have been strange coming from Reagan. Of course, if he'd cast it that way a month ago, this summer might have been much different.
The thing I'm worried about is that it's going to take more than a speech. This seems to fit the pattern of hanging back, letting things ripen, letting things ripen a bit more, perhaps too much, then stepping in, giving a great speech, and expecting that to fix everything. Too confident by half in the ability of his speechifyin' to bring everyone together. He's off to a great start, but now he's got to follow through with some of the leadership that's been lacking on this and SO. MANY. OTHER. issues for so long.
A community organizer doesn't get out too far in front of the community he's trying to organize; they might not follow. So he hangs back, works the phones, nudges people to sit down and talk with each other, and, if all goes well, at the end of the process people are amazed at what they've been able to accomplish.
The problem, of course, is that Mr Obama is not the Community Organizer In Chief. The situation doesn't call for cautious nudging, it calls for leadership. It looks like he's finally stepping up to the plate. But there has to be follow-through. One good speech, aided by an ill-mannered boor from South Carolina, won't do it.
Friday, September 4, 2009
I understand that each agent is an independent businessperson. I get it.
However, when I get the same form letter telling me I can save $426 from three different agents all on the same day, it makes it seem as if your agents are competing mostly with each other (rather than agents of other companies) and makes me wonder about how well-organized the entire operation is.
That is all.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
I'm just now getting a chance to write about this post yesterday by Jim Manzi, who's filling in at Andrew Sullivan's, on The Evolution of God and Manzi's defense (or at least argument for plausibility of) the thesis of divine purpose behind evolution.
On the most basic level, he's right, of course. The existence of God can't be disproven any more than Bertrand Russel's Teapot can be disproven. But Manzi claims something else; or rather, implies it rather than making an explicit claim.
Manzi begins with an explanation of genetic algorithms as a way of introducing concepts of genetics, including the idea of using evolutionary functions as a way of optimizing on multiple dimensions at once. And while I'd have a minor quibble or two with his wording, his explanation is correct; he clearly gets it.
However. He observes that genetic algorithms are used to find the best combination of 'genes' (which may be data inputs or weights, settings on controls...almost anything, really) for a given purpose. Yes, that's true, according to some externally defined fitness function, a way of boiling everything down to a definitive way of determining, for any two arbitrary members of the population, that this one is a better fit than that one.
In biological systems, of course, the "fitness function" is whether or not the organism survives long enough to breed and for its offspring to reach breeding age. (If it gives birth to a hundred young, and eats 99 of them, that's less fitness than one that gives birth to 3 offspring and carefully nurtures and protects them to adulthood.)
Manzi claims, correctly, that genetic algorithms can select the "best" combination. But: In biological systems, the real world, the "best" combination is determined by survival. This can include high-level activities, especially in social species--if I'm a good neighbor, my children will be taken in and raised even if I'm eaten by a bear.
Manzi seems to be making the implicit assumption that if there is a purpose to it all, the purpose must be to develop a mind capable of apprehending God.
(Which is terribly anthro-centric... Even if there is a purpose, why should it have anything to do with us? Why shouldn't the purpose of creation be to develop the perfect jellyfish? Using Manzi's own logic, this hypothesis can't be disproven.)
But evolution doesn't select for apprehension of the Divine, it selects for survival. Therefore, unless such apprehension, or its precursors, conferred a survival advantage on our ancestors, evolution wouldn't select for it. Is there any evidence that apprehension of the Divine, or its precursors, increased survival? Not that I'm aware of. Yes, religious belief is widespread, and was so in the ancient world, but that doesn't mean it's genetic. A study mentioned in Newsweek a few weeks back found that religious beliefs plummets in advanced societies with low levels of social dysfunction (poverty, crime, etc). If it was genetic, it wouldn't fade out so quickly. On the other hand, social dysfunction was ripe in the ancient world.
(Yes, this is the 'opiate of the masses' theory. Or, if you prefer, the "give me sense of being in control or at least a way to tell myself that someone's in charge" theory. Something can be universal or nearly so, and not biologically determined, if the environmental conditions that foster it are universal as well.)
So. If there's a purpose to it all, evolution probably isn't selecting for it. If you remove the assumption that if there's a purpose to it all then obviously the purpose of all creation is to result in us, you're left with...not much.
(Contrary to what some seem to think, evolution doesn't result in an "ascent" toward higher species... that sort of categorization is something popularizers put on it, but actual people working in the field don't. It's more like a bush branching out in all directions at once, not a tree climbing higher and higher.)
Also, a curmudgeonly point but one that needs consideration: We've existed as a species only about a million years or so, hardly a blink of an eye in geological time, and much less than many other species that were once dominant. Given how rapidly we seem to be making the planet uninhabitable and that we may yet succeed in wiping ourselves out, I'd say the long-term survival value of intelligence is still something that awaits definitive demonstration.
At any rate, Manzi seems to have some recognition of the difficulty he's in here. He then falls back on some unseemly hand-waving, simply declaring it out of bounds for science, in bounds for philosophy, and therefore he'll believe whatever he pleases:
A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.That's right, there's nothing for Science to do but throw up its hands and believe in teapots!
Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.
The combination of a constantly changing fitness landscape and an extraordinarily large number of possible genomes means that scientists appropriately proceed as if evolution were goalless, but from a philosophical perspective a goal may remain present in principle.And having decided that it "may remain present in principle," Manzi assumes it into being. But he runs into other problems as well.
But in fact, even the “random” elements of evolution that influence the path it takes toward its goal — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws.He's apparently never heard of quantum physics. Those "normal" physical laws include fundamental limits on what's knowable or predictable. We don't call them random, especially an event such as a nucleus ejecting a beta particle, i.e. a bit of radiation-- just because they're too insanely complicated for us to understand--they really are random. This has been taught in any college-level physics course for decades. He seems to admit this a paragraph later, but obviously hasn't thought through what it implies. Yes, statistically we can talk about half-life, which is an average, because we don't need to know which precise nucleus broke down--but when a phosphorus atom inside a DNA strand decays and is suddenly something else, it does matter which precise atom decayed, and which direction the beta particle was heading.
The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.Well, only by shifting definitions enough to keep them that way. Of course, the beauty of this particular dog-and-pony show is that the goalposts can always be moved. If we work out, for example, why pi has to have the exact value it does or why our physical laws are the way they are--perhaps no other set of laws would be stable--Manzi can always say "Yeah, but why is that?" and then declare that to be the 'ultimate' question. And when it's answered, he can find another. The problem isn't that "we don't care about the answers," it's that the question is poorly posed.
Might there be a purpose to it all, even if there's no evidence of such purpose? Sure. It can't be disproven. Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. But that's no reason to take it any more seriously than hen's teeth or orbital teapots. If someone wishes to believe there's a purpose to the entire universe, and they're it, that's their business, but "you can't prove it isn't!" is also no proof that it is. If you're claiming such a purpose exists, in the absence of any evidence, then you need to produce such evidence, or solid reasons why the lack of evidence doesn't matter. Unfortunately, Manzi has done neither.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I swear, you cannot make this up.
Y'know, when I was in grade school, a student came to school in a flag-motif shirt...and was sent home to change, and his parents were called in to have a chat with the principal. Flag desecration not being something the school would put up with.
Now, of course, it's a matter of political orthodoxy.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Friday, August 21, 2009
There's a how-many-movies-have-you-seen meme floating around Facebook at the moment that begins with the declaration:
SUPPOSEDLY if you've seen over 85 films, you have no life.Note that we're never told who's supposing this...
But at any rate. Let's test that assumption.
Assume that you see 85 movies. Further assume that the movies you see average 2 1/2 hours, about as long as the latest Harry Potter installment. (Mini-review: It was good, but as a friend of mine put it, I really don't see what there is about this that inspires such fanaticism...).
Further assume you spend 8 hours per night sleeping, 40 hours per week working, and 3 hours per day in other stuff (eating, commuting, etc), leaving 51 hours per week potential movie-watching time.
Let us further assume your movie-watching career began at age 10, and you are 35 when you take the quiz.
51 hours per week * 52 weeks per year * 25 years = 66,300 potential movie-watching hours.
85 movies * 2.5 hours each = 212.5 hours.
So if you've seen 85 movies, you've spent 212.5/66,300 = 0.321% (rounding up) of your time watching movies.
Hardly into "you have no life" territory.
As an aside, it's amazing what you can distract yourself with when you don't want to work....
Thursday, August 20, 2009
It's possible that seeing Julie & Julia triggered the final snap, but I've been in a culinary rut with the same few easy-to-fix things for quite a while. And, well, frankly, I'm getting darn tired of my own cooking, and how limited it is.
So, something snapped, and I says to myself, I says, "Self, either buy a damn cookbook or stop griping!"
So, I bought a damn cookbook.
No, not Julia's. The French cuisine I've had, eh. About half of it has been really good, about half inedible. (Yes, that may, probably does, say more about me than about French cuisine. Big deal. My point is, why master making food I don't care for?)
No, I'm not working my way through it systematically. I have no particular timetable, no "X recipes by this date" obsession. And as classes haven't started yet, I've got more time to cook that I do during the semester.
So far: Six days, seven recipes, only one failure, and I figured out what I did wrong with that one and tried again, with better results.
So, I may not have all my assignments and lecture notes written up, but at least I'm not sick of my own cooking.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
When one is watching a movie based on a cartoon series, and that cartoon series was designed to sell toys, one should keep expectations pretty low.
In this case, those low expectations weren't disappointed. It was, rather refreshingly, exactly what it claimed to be, no less and certainly no more.
Though the "weaponizing the warheads" sequence was particularly silly, even by the low standards of the movie-of-the-cartoon-of-the-commerical genre.
Though I'll give it this: Unlike the Transformers movie, it was always possible to tell who was fighting whom in the big finale. It's not much, but it's something.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Thomas Schaller has a good post up at Salon about about the faux-outrage on the right, shouting down dissent, and wondering where these people were during the huge governmental power grabs, documented lies, and government intrusion into health care over the last 8 years.
The Myth of the Rational Market
The Drunkard's Walk
Fooled by Randomness
Foucault's Pendulum (re-read)
Fooled by Randomness, followed by Foucault's Pendulum (which is all about looking for patterns that may or may not be there) makes for an interesting combination. Though I did notice some things on the re-read that I hadn't noticed when I first read the book, years ago... a message that had remained hidden all this time.... [snicker]
Monday, August 3, 2009
I've been gone for most of the last week on a personal trip to Tokyo. Lots of fun, many moments of minor culture shock, and continued amazement at the Tokyo public-transit system.
Coming back...well, American Airlines was having a very bad day at DFW yesterday. I'd like to personally thank them for the long delay before boarding, followed by the delay after boarding but before takeoff, so it was actually after our expected arrival time before we ever got off the ground. Coming at the end of a 24-hour marathon of planes and airports, it just helped make the trip that much more....special. After seeing Tokyo's Narita airport and how things could be run just made the experience back here that much more depressing. And annoying.
The snark will resume once I'm back on a normal schedule and caught up on my reading.
Monday, July 20, 2009
What is it, some kind of kidnapping? And in addition to stuffing the poor man into a violin case, the case itself was stolen? Is that even relevant? Given what you'd have to do to get someone (even a very small someone) stuffed into a violin case, is ownership of the violin case itself really the issue here?
A reader at The Dish speaks the truth:
I do not identify myself as an atheist, because it is an entirely negative word -- it doesn't really say anything about what I do believe, only what I don't. And it continues to frame the discourse in the terms of the believer. I understand that for believers (or many believers, anyway) questions about the existence and nature of God are very important. But they are not important to me. I think the question of God's existence is just not very interesting, and my lack of belief in God is not a foundation of my moral or philosophical identity (however much believers want it to be). How could it be a foundation? How could I build a moral and philosophical view of the universe predicated on what I don't believe?
What's important to me is what I do believe -- and that's what I'd rather talk about. The mysteries of science and philosophy -- particle physics, genetics, phenomenology, neurology, astronomy, Camus' struggle with absurdity. There is so much there to talk about that is fascinating and unknown and worthy of study and speculation, that to be constantly dragged back to this obsession with "God" is really just kind of dull. That's one problem people who don't believe in God run into -- all anyone wants to talk about is their non-believing. It keeps the ball entirely in the believers' court, and the discussion entirely on their terms. (When non-believers are allowed into the discussion at all, of course.)
Exactly. I've had more discussions than I care to that fall back to me being called on to justify why I don't find someone else's holy book convincing, when it was obviously written by the Big Guy Himself, and we know it was because it says so, right there on the cover...
Or being told that I cannot appreciate wonder, or beauty, or really love anyone...
Which, of course, isn't exactly the case.
[Note to self: Don't start blog posts 15 minutes before class. More later....]
Friday, July 10, 2009
As the point of this blog is allegedly tech, maybe I should talk about tech once in a while...
There's an article on Slate discussing why the new Google Chrome OS is doomed before it ever gets out of the gate. I'm not sure I'd write it off just yet, and some of Farhad Manjoo's reasoning is just silly, but all in all it does look as if the odds are against it. Dealing with the 5 reasons why it's a bad idea, in order:
Linux is hard to love. This part of Manjoo's argument is the weakest, because he's cherry-picking his facts. Yes, we know, MS Office (Word, Excel, etc) won't run on Linux. Has he heard of Open Office? Of the GIMP for image editing? Apparently not. Are there features of the MS products that the Linux counterparts don't support? Not that he mentions... Apparently if it doesn't have the MS stamp on it, it doesn't exist.
Likewise, his argument about hardware installation is weaker than it first appears, mostly because he's apparently unaware of the progress that's been made in making Linux more user-friendly. The vast majority of hardware issues can be resolved much more easily than his example.
But. There's that last 5% of hardware issues that are tricky, or that involve multiple steps. There's less hand-holding in the Linux world, and a general assumption that you're willing to learn a little something about the computer you're using. Those who want to pay a couple of thousand dollars for a computer and then specifically avoid learning anything about it are advised to give their money to Steve Jobs, buy an Apple, and pat themselves on the back for being precious unique snowflakes.
There's also the issue of the entire ecosystem. I still use Windows. I could make the jump to Linux for 95% of what I do. I'm not worried about the oh-so-terrifying setup process (my last Linux install went smoother than any Windows installation has ever gone for me) or that I might have to configure something myself. But it's the last 5% of apps, the occasional game, the tool that I need to use because my workplace has standardized on it and while there are plenty of Linux tools that do the same thing, they're not file-system-level compatible... and it doesn't make sense to have a second computer just for those few things. I suspect I'm not the only one. And this is the biggest hurdle Linux (or Chrome) is going to have. I can use Open Office for writing and spreadsheets, GIMP for image editing, GnuCash instead of Quicken for managing my finances.... but if that last 5% of software is my favorite game, or a business-critical application, then I'm locked in to Windows no matter how much I loathe parts of it.
We aren't ready to run everything on the web. Again, an argument that gets weaker by the day as Web options develop. But this section contains what is actually Manjoo's strongest argument--that once everything moves to the web, it doesn't matter what OS the user is running anyway. That's the entire point of moving to the web, to do everything through that interface so it works the same way in any standards-compliant browser. (Which rules out Microsoft, but they're making progress... oh darn, there goes that snark again.) So if you're using Windows, or a Mac, or Fred's Kustom Home-Made Hand-Carved All-Natural OS, and are satisfied with it...why switch to Chrome?
Microsoft is a formidable opponent. Yes, indeed. As Tolkien put it, "It does not do to leave a dragon out of your plans, if he lives nearby." MS isn't a particularly innovative company and hasn't been for years. They wait until someone else demonstrates that a product can make it, and what features are necessary to gain popularity--then either buy it up or brew their own. And they have lots of smart people working for them, and the deep pockets to keep working on it until they get it right, generally around version 3 or 4. At that point, the second-to-none MS marketing team goes to work, and the competition gets ulcers.
Google Fails Often. I'm not sure what to make of this argument, which seems to boil down to "Google tries lots of things and not all of them work." Well, yes. The same could be said of a certain company in Redmond. And the small market share for the Chrome browser isn't necessarily an indicator that it's a failure, given its short time on the market and out of beta. Firefox demonstrated that if you do something better than MS, you can take share away from them. And that giving Microsoft some competition spurs it on to more innovation itself. (Development on Internet Explorer had essentially stopped until Firefox started taking market share away and goading MS into doing something about it. Monopolies lead to higher prices, slower innovation, and poorer quality. That iron law of economics has not been repealed for the benefit of the Redmond Behemoth.) Most companies fail often. Few have deep enough pockets to survive more than 2 or 3 such failures. Google can, so it can seem like a long record of failure. In fact, it's very difficult to predict what's going to take off, what's going to be popular, etc. So they throw everything at the wall & see what sticks. Failure is part of the process. Thomas Edison said some very similar things; most of what he did failed. The few successes made up for it.
Chrome makes no business sense. Again, he raises a point that I wonder if Google had considered. What's the business case? Attracting people to Google so they'll use Google's tools? They could do that in Windows. Push costs down to help grow the netbook market? Microsoft has shown it's willing to cut incredible deals & take a loss to keep its hegemony. It's hard to see how this leads to increased share of an existing market or substantial growth in an emerging market that Google wants to be a part of.
So, bottom line. Doomed? Not necessarily. Manjood overstates his case a bit. But the odds are against it. Given some time and some luck, it may become a niche player. Of course, at one time, that's what Microsoft was, too....
Monday, July 6, 2009
Ross Douthat has an article in today's NY Times that sets up a fairly bogus dichotomy, then plays with it to try to demonstrate that Sarah Palin's problems are ultimately just class envy. Or something.
Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.Well.... not quite. The whole "anyone can become president" idea is, yes, about the idea that in theory at least, your chances of becoming president shouldn't depend on whether your name is Clinton or Kennedy, Bush or McCain. Or whether you went to an Ivy League school.
Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.
But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.
No. Sarah Palin's problems aren't that she didn't go to an Ivy League school. They're related to the fact that she was nominated for VP, much farther than many already go...and demonstrated repeatedly that she wasn't up to the job. She claimed to read "all" the newspapers but couldn't name a single one. She claimed that being able to see Russia from parts of Alaska constituted foreign-policy credentials. She claimed her life was an open book and her administration set a model for transparency, but refused to release any of her medical records and used private email accounts to conduct state business to avoid open-records laws. She claimed to support the Bush Doctrine, but couldn't say what it was. She compared herself to a pit bull but complained when she was called an attack dog. There are many, many graduates of many fine state universities who show more of a grasp of national issues.
Sarah Palin was put into the rigors of a campaign, was weighed, measured, and found wanting. There's no shame in not being up to the job of President; most of us aren't. I doubt Mr Douthat is; I'm certainly not. And given a few years to prepare, it's not inconceivable that she can make herself ready by 2012, or 2016, or 2020. But in 2008, she was not ready.
The "democratic ideal" is not and never has been that J. Random Citizen can ascend to the White House in the absence of any other qualification. It's that with ambition and talent, one can prove him- or herself fit to serve, even if there's no Harvard or Princeton or Yale time in the biography. Sarah Palin's loss says nothing about that.
Despite what Mr Douthat says, the message isn't "forget it." The message is "a diploma, or lack of one, will only take you so far."
Were some of the attacks on Palin unfair? Yes. Were they any worse than the unfair attacks Obama was dealing with, including Palin's "palling around with terrorists" line? I don't think so. Certainly no other VP candidate has gone so far to question the basic loyalty of the other party's nominee. Has there been any candidate for President or VP in the last 40 years who hasn't faced unfair attacks in the rigors of the campaign? Has there been any candidate who's refused to give interviews or hold a press conference, and not been criticized for it?
There's a not-so-subtle conflation going on here. Mr Douthat starts by presenting the democratic ideal as "that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard." Well, she won a statewide beauty contest (something many others have tried and failed to do), rose through politics to become Governor of her state (again, something many others spend their careers trying and failing to do) and became the VP nominee of a major party. There are talented, ambitious people (many with Ivy League degrees) who spend their lives preparing and striving for that goal, and who never make it.
True, she lost the election. In any election, there can be only one winner. But does the fact that she has already risen higher than 99+% of the professional political class, is nationally known with a strong base, with at least 20 years of her career still ahead of her, not indicate that she can, already has, become a success story?
Of course, success at that level brings life in the fishbowl, unfair attacks, media attention, and all the rest. If she's as smart as her supporters claim, then she should have known that going in to it. The experience of the campaign should have convinced her.
And Mr Douthat should know better than to blame her problems on social class, as if the election was hers to lose until that gosh-darn elitist liberal media started ganging up on her.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I haven't posted much the last few days, in spite of some remarkable news events abroad and truly snark-worthy happenings in the media, because I'm continuing my education as a new homeowner.
Though I must commend the staff at both Lowe's and Home Depot for putting up with some ill-informed questions and a couple episodes of walking me through some options until we worked out what it was I needed.
As the new-homeowner expenses are settling down a little, my car has been acting funny the last couple of days... so it's off to deal with that this afternoon. I can't help thinking of John Lennon's definition of Life: "What happens when you've made other plans."
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
You claim that when you speak out against White House policy, you're targeted by the media.
Actually, it's not that.
It's that when you spout half-informed moonbat conspiracy theories, people laugh at you. You're being "targeted" only because you're good for ratings, and not in a way you'd like.
There's a difference.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
People in Iran have really long names.
Where would we be without Faux Noise, er, um, Fox News, to tell us these things?
I've spent much of the last several days glued to my monitor watching the extraordinary events in Iran unfold. I don't have any information or much insight to add to what's already being said, and Andrew Sullivan is doing extraordinary work on this.
The only thing that's striking about this is how it seems to have caught everyone in the West so thoroughly by surprise. Like the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this appears to Western eyes to have come out of nowhere, though in retrospect we'll tell ourselves there were signs there to be seen. And there probably were...but we weren't paying attention. We didn't notice them. We didn't take them seriously.
Of course, it would have been hard to predict that the election would be rigged that clumsily. A rigged election was more or less expected, but one that "no one in their right mind can believe" wasn't, and has proven to be the proverbial straw.
And so far, Obama has done exactly the right thing, by staying out of it, so neither side can accuse the other of being pawns or dupes of the Great Satan. This isn't about us; it's about them.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
On the one hand, several of George Will's points are well-taken. Trying to prop up failing carmakers may well just be prolonging the pain. (Mr Will seems more concerned with the harmful effects of propping up companies that provide working class jobs than the evils of propping up investment banks, but oh well....)
I'm just not sure how seriously I can take an argument that relies on Calvin Coolidge as its model of prudent leadership.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Summer classes started last night. I've got 24 students, which is big for a summer class. So far, so good, though I've got plenty of assignments to finish up. Which is part of why I haven't gone looking for time-wasters...I don't have a spare weekend just yet. But it's on the list, really. Just as soon as I finish up prepping for the summer class already in progress, finish up the revisions for the engineering programming course that's getting a long-overdue overhaul, follow up on a long-ago pledge to the department chair to get some training in the accreditation process to step up my committee responsibilities....
Yeah, right. I might have a free weekend someday.
Wonkette sums up my feelings about Chuck Grassley's indignant twitters to/about Obama, which have the depth & tone you'd expect from a teenager:
We are all stupider for having read this.Seriously, go read the twits in question. They read like something an overprivileged teenager would write. This clown is a U.S. Senator? Yes, the 140-character limit of Twitter doesn't lend itself to pensive asides or elaborately-built-up arguments, but this is absurd.
Proof once more of the dictum from the founding fathers (I don't remember if it was Jefferson or Madison, and could be wrong about both of them). Democracy doesn't ensure the people get the leadership they want, but it does ensure they get the leadership they deserve.
[h/t: Andrew Sullivan]
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Including the one that everyone wonders about, "How Many Balloons Would It Take To Lift A House?"
Incidentally, welcome to blog post #400. Launch the balloons, toss the confetti, and all that.
Apparently Pat Robertson made a spectacularly silly comment to the effect that if gay marriage becomes legal, then marriage to ducks can't be far behind. Or someone who likes sex with ducks will be able to marry one. Or something. (Last time I checked, animals couldn't enter into legally binding relationships with people, or vice versa, but I never ever claimed to understand Pat Robertson's thought processes.)
At any rate, here's a fun little song about where it all could lead.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Warning: Extreme nerd-dom ahead.
So there's a post at the Atlantic about the government's ownership of 60% of GM, taking on the ludicrous claim that the government now owns a large swath of corporate America. As the post correctly points out, the actual ownership of private companies by the federal government is substantially under 1/10 of 1%, which is hardly a socialist paradise. However, the reporter completely blows it with this discussion of the (admittedly rather fun) pie chart produced by Excel:
What I do see is that Microsoft Excel feels the need to portray the percentage of American companies owned by the government as an irrational number. That's 5.07e^-02, or %0.0507 of American companies that are owned by the United States. (When I ask Excel to display this breakdown in real numbers it just becomes "100%" and "0%.")Um, no. Wrong. That's not an irrational number. It's scientific notation. An irrational number is a number that can't be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. It has nothing to do with whether it's written in a mantissa-exponent form (as in 5.07 * 10^-2). Scientific notation is handy for dealing with very large or very small numbers, and yes, Excel would round it to 0%, unless you asked Excel to display things out to some fixed number of decimal places.
Which is simple to do, as is suppressing scientific notation in the first place. Either one takes about 4 clicks of the mouse.
Really, people who do business reporting should be familiar with the basic functions of spreadsheet software, and if you're going to complain about something being a particular type of number, you should have some idea what you're talking about.
Update: After numerous comments in the comments section, it's been fixed so that instead of "irrational number" it says "exponential notation." All is well.
No, late-term abortion isn't a good thing. But life sometimes presents unpleasant choices, his practice was legal, and he didn't deserve to be shot down in church.
Prediction: The killer will claim a religious justification.
And remember, that report from DHS a while back about right-wing extremists (that GWB ordered up) was just liberal hogwash, because conservatives would never, ever actually do anything violent. And yes, this was terrorism. This wasn't just about Dr Tiller. This was also intended to send a clear warning to any doctor thinking about providing a similar service: You could be next.
Mark Kleiman, as usual, nails it. Three times in a row: One Two Three.
As one of the things I've read the last day or two put it (I can't track down the original post now, it may have been a commenter on Sullivan), women have the capacity to choose to end pregnancies, even late-term ones. Never mind the legalities, they can make that decision and take action to carry it out. Given that reality, I'd rather they had the option of a doctor's office and not a back-alley coat-hanger operation. Yes, it's morally problematic. Regulations may need to be tighter, and support for other options strengthened. But it has to be one of the options, if only because it's less problematic than shoving it onto the black market.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Picking up the rental truck this morning, then getting my posse (such as it is) together to get the furniture hauled down here. At that point everything will be officially moved.
I may get out from under the huge stack of boxes at some point in the future....
Thursday, May 21, 2009
This post is being made from the new house... First night in the new place, and I don't know if it's the paint, or the new furniture, or the new bedding, but something's giving off a few fumes, judging from the slightly sore throat I've got this morning.
Oh well. Back to get the rest of the kitchen stuff. I've got most of what I need moved, getting down to the "do I really need this stuff? Bad enough to pack it up and schlep it across town?" stage... Further updates as events develop.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The house is bought, and possession has been taken.
I am becoming familiar with Home Depot and Lowe's much more thoroughly than I ever expected to the first week.
Paint has been applied, shelves installed, a few blinds up, and I have applied proper first aid for the credit card burns I got at Nebraska Furniture Mart yesterday.
The next two weeks are going to be an interesting experience of caravaning my stuff across town. Posting may be even more sporadic than usual.
That is all.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
I certainly don't agree very often with the Southern Baptist Convention, about anything, but it's hard to improve on this statement about torture (specifically including waterboarding) from Richard Land, of the SBC ethics & public policy conference:
"It violates everything we believe in as a country," Land said, reflecting on the words in the Declaration of Independence: that "all men are created equal" and that "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
"There are some things you should never do to another human being, no matter how horrific the things they have done. If you do so, you demean yourself to their level," he said.
"Civilized countries should err on the side of caution. It does cost us something to play by different rules than our enemies, but it would cost us far more if we played by their rules," Land concluded.
Given how much the GOP is in the pocket of the SBC (and vice versa), that's a risky statement to make. All the more reason to applaud it.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
So it turns out that those who attend church most often, are also the most comfortable with torture.
More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.Note: There were problems with sample size, so this may not be particularly generalizable. The problem isn't bad enough that I'm prepared to flat-out call bullshit on this, but it may be a mistake to read too much into it.
But how does that "religion make you better person" thing work again? Granted, this is only one questionable data point, but still...
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Email to Andrew Sullivan:
My point was that growing inequality will be very, very hard to prevent or restrain in the face of these factors.
Nice job of proving Doug's point. [Ed. note: Doug's post is here.]
Right now our educational system is, for the relatively affluent, mostly pretty good and in some places very good. For the poor, the average quality is lower, and in some places, the schools are a sad joke. And of course, a better basic education leads to the opportunities for better college education, etc.
When we're providing good-quality basic education across the board, and the reward structure in our society is less tilted toward "them that has, gets; them that hasn't gets left behind," maybe we can have the discussion about how much of the remaining inequality is unalterable.
But are you seriously suggesting that the current huge and widening inequality in our society is because the affluent are simply smarter than everyone else, without regard to anything else? My, how convenient. After all, if the problem is that the poor and unemployed are just stupid, well, what can you do?
Will there always be some inequality? Of course. But I'm not aware of any serious work on the issue suggesting that intelligence is "infinitely alterable." Stop knocking down straw men. Yes, we need to focus on education. Yes, we need better metrics than dollars spent per student and the perverse incentives of No Child Left Untested. Yes, absolutely. And we shouldn't expect better schools to bring about Utopia tomorrow. But if anything, a better focus on education, on bringing failing schools up to where they ought to be, would decrease inequality. Or at least make the face of success look a little less Anglo-Saxon.
I teach freshman-level courses at a public urban university, and my classes have too many smart students who can barely read, have never learned math, and have no idea what study habits are. They're going to school while also supporting themselves, and sometimes extended families, at low-wage jobs in crumbling neighborhoods. Oddly enough, they seem to have more problems than the students who come out of better school systems and are able to devote themselves to school full time. I've had more than one bright, promising student in my office explaining that they like being in school but can't afford it; or their child care fell through; or they have to care for an uninsured parent who fell ill.
When those students have the same opportunities and resources that you and I take for granted, we can talk about inequality due to differences in intelligence. Sure, there will always be some. But you cannot seriously believe that's what's causing the "growing inequality" of the last three decades.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
It appears the logjam has broken... I've spent most of the day coordinating phone calls, faxes, document scans, and emails between my local loan officer, the loan approval officer at the national office, my insurance agent, and my realtor. So yippee.
On the other hand, I haven't got much else done this afternoon, and I've got some things that really need to be done. It may be a late night.
Monday, April 13, 2009
It seems that Brit Hume doesn't think much of the Obamas' new dog, deriding it as "girly."
He, um, is aware that the President has two daughters, isn't he?
Someday there needs to be a cable-news smackdown, Brit Hume vs Keith Olbermann, to see who can do the most self-important harrumphing.
That may even be worth a pay-per-view.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
In a revelation that should surprise no one, the "spontaneous" citizen's uprising calling itself the teabag movement is actually being coordinated by two corporate lobbying organizations with a long history of setting up fake astroturf campaigns.
So I hope the enraged wingnuts are enjoying being corporate tools.
On the other hand, as someone generally in favor of teabagging, I hope they have a great time.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Okay. Fair enough.
I'm just curious, though.
How many executives at AIG, Goldman, or Citigroup, or Bank of America had to resign as a condition of receiving any assistance?
And they got a straight bailout, if I recall correctly, didn't they? It wasn't just access to loans? And wasn't it an order of magnitude more money?
Why, yes. I believe it was.
Can someone explain how this is anything other than rank classism, with financial companies given billions while manufacturing companies are forced to jump through hoops to receive much less assistance?
Late edit: It was only 1 order of magnitude more money, not 2. My mistake.
Friday, March 27, 2009
From an article on GM's woes....
General Motors has experience shedding divisions, and shut down the Oldsmobile brand in 2001. Plenty of Oldsmobiles are still on the road today, and continue to receive service through GM dealers and the independent aftermarket industry. Likewise, when Ford bid alvederzane to their German Merkur brand or when Chrysler furled the sails on Plymouth,...Emphasis added.
Okay, trying to throw in some German when referring to a German brand is understandable. But next time, would it be possible to get it proofread by someone who actually knows German? I'm not sure I could spell Auf Wiedersehen correctly without looking it up, but I could certainly come closer than that...
(And I didn't look it up, and I may have misspelled it...but I still came closer than the supposed pro....)
Update Mar. 29: It's been fixed.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
There's an outraged op-ed in the Times today from an offended trader at AIG financial products, angry at getting tarred with the same brush as the people who brought down the company.
And then there's Andrew Leonard's point:
DeSantis received a bonus payment on March 16 of $742,006.40. But he's going to donate all the after-tax proceeds to charity, and he can do that because "I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust."
If you are in a position to donate more than half a million to charity and your family finances are still secure enough during one of the worst recessions in American history that you can blithely quit your job, then you are sitting squarely within the most privileged sector of U.S. society. You are still living a life that is out of reach to the vast majority of Americans.And I just don't think most people will care how betrayed you feel.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Work is coming along, though Spring Break is going to be mostly an exercise in catching up (and this is any different than usual how?). Made an offer on a house and we're moving forward, but the inspection inevitably found a few things, so now we're in the negotiations about who pays for what. So it's far from a done deal and could still fall through in any of several different ways. Something had to go overboard, and it was mostly blogging. Meh. Life happens. Oh, and I haven't had as much time to devote to the all-important webcomic reading either. I am SO going to have to get caught up over break....
In a post about a topic I'm not informed enough to have an opinion on (yes, there are a few of them), Mark Kleiman wonders if there's a form of the term "bimbo" that applies to men.
The term I've heard used is "himbo."
Glad to be of service.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
Just because Obama won, doesn't mean the voters liked his ideas; they just didn't like McCain very much. If he's serious about bipartisanship, he should do whatever the Republicans want.* And it's foolish for the President to take on someone as powerful as Rush Limbaugh, because he can get the Republican base very riled up.
*Remember, that's what 'bipartisanship' means--Democrats doing what Republicans want.
If it weren't so sad, it'd be funny.
And yes, I know, no posts for a month. I'll try to do better.