Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

We've lost a thinker, one not afraid to say the truth as he saw it. Literate, reasoned, passionate about his causes, never one to shirk from a fight or to back down when principle was at stake. Restless, curious, erudite. His knowledge sometimes seemed encyclopedic, and some of his articles were on topics I knew nothing about--but his writing made it clear, and why it mattered.

I suspect he would have been alternately infuriating and inspiring to have working in the office next to you.

He's been taken from us too soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

McArdle on Poverty II

She is on a roll...! Seriously. Go read it. This should be required reading.


I couldn't let Andrew's latest hilarity pass without mentioning it...

Here's the setup:

I left the conversation hanging a while back, after my post about God being the most powerful force in the universe, rather than the anthropocentric notion of an old man with a gray beard in the sky. I left it because it felt like an impasse, with my view hovering in mid-air next to that of many readers, who insist that Christianity conform to what they think it must be (mythical piffle).

Yes, just because many, perhaps most, practicing Christians take their mythical piffle quite seriously and get rather upset when you try to point out the mythical-piffleness of it. And note that the problem is that his readers are insisting that Christianity conform to "what they think it must be," (emphasis mine), a nicely dismissive phrase that makes it clear that they just haven't thought it through like he has.

Here's the pitch:
But my view is certainly orthodox Christianity, as long as you ascribe consciousness andcaritas to the universal creative force. Anyway, that is a roundabout way of saying I read something this week that seemed more persuasive than my flawed efforts.
Then he quotes another source:
What’s true of us is true of nature. If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball. Whatever the reason, that thing out there, with the black holes and the nebulae and whatnot, is conscious.
And here's the punchline (still quoting that secondary source):
One cannot look in the mirror and rationally deny this. It experiences love and desire, or thinks it does. The idea is enough to render the Judeo-Christian cosmos sort of quaint. . . .It works perfectly as a religion. Others talk about God, and I feel we can sit together, that God is one of this thing’s masks, or that this thing is God.

And remember, gang, there's absolutely NO mythical piffle here! Because...because...well, there just isn't, because he said so. That Nature developed consciousness as a means of observing itself? An interesting idea...but hardly self-evident or impossible to deny, and it is by no means self-evident that Nature 'experiences love and desire.' Insisting it does, with no evidence (Nature seems to have an awful lot of random cruelty and wanton destruction as well) is...well... mythical piffle.

More on Poverty

Following up on yesterday's post...

One of the most pernicious aspects of poverty is touched on by a post over at Sullivan, relating to what the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty (news flash: There doesn't seem to be one).

The issue relates to what's called locus of control: Basically, do you see what happens to you as the result of choices you make that are under your control, or the result of events outside your control.

As Megan McArdle pointed out in the post I linked yesterday, there's no margin for error when you're poor. A careless, frivolous expense early in the month may mean you live on PBJ (or just skip a few meals) by the end of the month. Yes, you can save for something--but an unexpected car repair can wreck your plans completely. (And of course, since a beater was all you could afford, it's more likely to break down in the first place.) There was an NPR interview I heard a while back of someone trying an experiment of living on food stamps for a few months, and then writing about it. What she described was interesting--she said she expected money to be tight, but she wasn't ready for how exhausting it was. You couldn't just decide "that looks good, and it's on sale, I'll get it." You still had to think through how much you had left, what else you needed to get, what other expenses you had this month...on and on. Day after day.

Or, as my mom once said, "There's no shame in being poor, but it's damned inconvenient."

And eventually, the grind wears you down. And you stop considering possibilities. You saved up for the class at the community college but then your car broke down the 4th week of classes and by the time you got it fixed you'd missed two weeks of classes and couldn't catch up. You tried to get into that training program but your job changed your schedule and you couldn't go. The kids got sick and you couldn't get anyone to care for them so you had to stay home, and that got you fired.

And eventually, it really does seem as if life is happening to you rather than being under your control. Your locus of control has been externalized; and once that's happened, changing that way of thinking is very difficult. The narrowing of possibilities, the not even considering certain options because "that isn't for people like me" or "that wouldn't work anyway" or "I'd never be able to afford it," the lowering of ambitions and goals until it's "Just make it through to the weekend." Keep your head down, don't make waves.

Unfortunately, the "ground down and kicked around until ready to just give up" state can also be interpreted as "some people just prefer poverty to getting off their butts and doing something about it." Because, of course, when an unexpected $500 car repair bill is inconvenient but not catastrophic, when a day's work doesn't involve backbreaking labor--in short, when you're comfortably middle class and have convinced yourself it's all entirely because of your own achievements--it's plainly self-evident that anyone else could do it too. And as Heinlein pointed out, "Anytime 'everyone knows' thus-and-such, it ain't so, by at least a thousand to one."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

McArdle on Poverty

A few weeks back I mentioned in passing that the Atlantic's Megan McArdle has an occasional habit of falling back into glibertarian hand-waving. Fairness demands I point out that when she avoids it--as this post on the intractability of poverty certainly does--she's first rate.

She points out that there are environmental constraints, but also bad choices, and (what too many writers on this subject don't get, but if you've ever lived in poverty you learn real quick):

It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently. But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly. There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.
And that many decisions made out of fatigue, hopelessless, lack of information, or simply different priorities, lead to perpetuation of the problem.

It's a hard problem. Really hard. I don't have an easy answer any more than she does. But it's nice to see someone on the internet recognizing both sides of the problem, at least.

As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Logic that you only hear in faculty meetings

Our school requires PhD faculty to teach 2 courses per semester.

Many top research schools require 1 course per semester, or less, from their top researchers.

Therefore we should reduce our teaching load.

Hmmmm, how many hidden assumptions can you find in that statement?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Things I've learned from grading students' papers

  • Viewing someone's public Facebook profile without their written permission is a violation of their privacy. (At least if it's a University doing the looking.)
  • Posting something on Facebook (such as bragging about breaking a University's rules) is the same as confessing in a courtroom and is absolutely dispositive.
  • Corporations have good reasons for gathering information on their customers, it's for the customer's own good, and the fact that it may conceivably have a theoretical misuse is irrelevant, because they've said they won't misuse it, so they won't.
  • Copyright doesn't apply to the performance of a play if it's performed outdoors.
  • Bragging about breaking a University's rules can't be used against the student if the rulebreaking or cheating takes place off-campus.
  • You can copy a copyrighted work, as long as the amount copied is less than 100%.
  • Once a company has your data, they can use it for any purpose whatever, regardless of why it was originally collected. This is legal, so by definition it is ethical and there is no rational basis for objecting.
This is why it's so hard to go to work some mornings....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State, and lacking explanations

The news coming out of Penn State is, of course, shocking, outrageous, and all the rest. Plenty of pundits are trying to come up with reasons why it happened, or how it could have gone on so long, or how varied the reactions are now (the students are rioting because the coach was fired for covering up child rape? and they're seeing the coach as the victim?).

Megan McArdle over at the Atlantic is trying to come to grips with it. I've had my criticisms of Ms. McArdle in the past; I don't remember if I've shared any of them here or not. Her tendency toward glib, dismissive, off the cuff solutions to other people's problems, privileged outrage when things affect her personally (see debit card fees, and limits thereon), blahblahblah. Some of her comments are, I think, pretty much on target; others are almost dangerously out to lunch. Overall, her on-target percentage is higher than average, probably higher than mine, so I keep some opinions to myself. After all, she's putting her thoughts out there with her name on them for public view daily, I'm firing off potshots relatively anonymously when the mood hits me. There's a difference.

She's grappling with why this happened, how it could have happened, what possible reason people could have for letting it go on. And she's coming up short.

Because, as an economist, she's viewing things as a classical economist. To the classical economist, people are rational, utility-maximizing beings, with at least a modicum of empathy toward others, basic fairness, and an enlightened-self-interest recognition of the societal need to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.

Which may be very useful for certain types of analysis, but fails completely (because it is completely at variance with reality) when we enter the dark twilight world where power, privilege, and sex intersect.

On a campus with a winning football team, the coaches (and to a lesser degree the athletes) have power. And they certainly have privilege. The problem with privilege, of course, is that it becomes invisible, taken for granted, and tends to grow. Those with privilege quickly learn that there's no one to say no. Or to give any negative feedback at all. I read a blog yesterday quoting Walter Mondale to the effect that he didn't realize he wasn't funny until he was no longer VP and people stopped laughing at his jokes. So, one tends to assume that if in doubt, one can get away with it. Because one always has in the past.

Meanwhile, for those in the vicinity... Taking on someone with power is risky. It's dangerous. It's unpleasant. Part of privilege is that others will take one's side no matter how egregious the offense (see Students, Penn State, Rioting). If anyone loses their job, it's usually not the privileged one.

So it's easier (lower immediate cost) to look the other way and maybe try not to think about it too much. In fact, after a while, that becomes rather easy. All too easy.

It's not a satisfying explanation. It's not rational. It's not about rational behavior. It's about social pressure and not wanting to rock the boat and not taking on someone who has Very Important Friends, In High Places. No, they didn't market their development office as a pedophile procurement business. But if Big Donor X called up and asked so-and-so to call him back, well, you take the message and pass it along. Do you suspect? Maybe. But you don't know, and why make trouble for a winning program on the basis of rumor? Particularly when whatever hits the fan will not be distributed evenly?

As much as I've ragged on him (and I have shared those views here), Andrew Sullivan understands it. His parallels with the Church abuse scandals are a little overdrawn--I don't believe the comparison is as direct as he's making it here--but it's the same basic dynamic at play.

The people who did know, who saw, and did nothing, are the most contemptible here. But that's another rant. For another evening.

It's not rational. It's not amenable to economic analysis. But it's still reality.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Today's random musing

Sparked by a quote posted by Sullivan:

"Some of you … God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is 'meritous.' He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you," - Pastor Mark Driscoll.

Quoting a friend of mine: "I know that I've created my God in my own image and likeness when he hates all the same people I hate."

This has been today's random musing.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meanwhile.... rolls out its own makeover.... and immediately becomes a leading contender for Slowest Loading Site On The Whole Damn Internet.

Further bulletins as events develop.

I know what I said yesterday, but... continues its push to drive away readers and push itself [farther] into irrelevancy with a hideous makeover of the homepage. Butt-ugly, badly organized, loaded with twitterish fluff and "here's what your neighbors are reading" pap, it's becoming an example of everything that's wrong with online culture.

No, I'm not a fan.

I understand they're struggling, and have to keep changing and adapting if they're going to survive. This isn't a "they've changed it, argh, change bad" post, but the changes they've made are a major step backwards in the usefulness and interest of the site.

So, they've made a decision about their market, and I'm not really part of it. Fair enough. Good luck, guys... I'll check in occasionally, but probably not as often.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On hold

Let's make it official...

We're working on an initiative for one of the classes I teach to try to reduce the rate of D/F/Withdrawal grades in the course. I might write some things about it here sometime--we're certainly seeing some interesting things, and it's been fun watching our associate dean learn all about the joys of teaching freshmen--but I'm too busy working the 10 and 12 hour days to have time to blog about them.

Random Musings from a Random Geek is on hiatus. Posts will be occasional at best. To my regular readers, both of you, I'll try to be back but am not sure when that will be.

Move along, nothing to see here.....

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dear Snowflake

Dear Snowflake:

As part of our course on programming, I assign various programming projects for you to do. I understand that my students are still learning, and this is an introductory class. Part of what you are learning is how to solve problems and how to track down problems in your programs. Because you are still learning how to do this, I am available to provide assistance if you get stuck on solving a problem, don't understand what the error message is telling you, don't understand why you're getting the wrong results, etc.

Sometimes I am in the middle of doing something else when your email arrives. In this case, I might send off a quick note pointing out some obvious problems to get you started on finding a solution, and hope you can take it from there; or if not, that you will contact me with a more thorough exploration of the problem after removing some of the most obvious issues.

However, just to be clear: I assigned this to YOU, not the other way around. Therefore, when you email me back and the extent of your communication is "It's still not working," I take that as an interesting anecdote, but not something that obligates me to drop what I'm doing and provide further assistance. Likewise, your suggestion that I might want to take another look at the code is, depending on my mood, somewhere on the amusing-to-annoying continuum, but again, not something that requires any action on my part. The point of the exercise is not to determine whether I can write the program. I already got the program running. I wrote all of it, including the extra-credit portion, before I gave the assignment, as a check that i wasn't making the assignment too big or too difficult. (I still err sometimes, but it's about as much on the too-small/too-easy side as too-big/too-hard, so I'm OK with that.)

I will be happy to provide further assistance. Your email should begin with your best diagnosis of the problem, what tests you have conducted that led you to that conclusion, and what you have already tried in solving the problem. This doesn't have to be elaborate. A description of "I can't open the input file, and I've tried following the example in the text; here's my code, is this the right syntax?" is a perfectly reasonable request. "It's not working, fix it" is not.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Moving the goalposts, again

Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, there's a discussion about psilocybin and the mental states it can induce, including the degree to which such states mimic the 'spiritual awakening' states of deep meditation. Andrew concedes that such states might be purely a matter of brain function, but then follows it with:

But the ultimate source of that feeling of universal beneficence that seems calculated to make humans the happiest and kindest they can be remains a mystery. Perhaps it's all neurons and chemicals - but if they are part of God too, that argument fails.

GAAAAAH! So in other words, it's not brain states, it's God. Oh, there's evidence it may be brain state after all? Well, that's all from God too, so I'm right!

No matter what, there has to be an invisible man behind the curtain, and if you can show it's not where he said it was last week, then we'll just move the invisible man to somewhere else, where you can't find proof just as easy, and sit back smugly as if we've proven something.

No, that argument doesn't 'fail.' If you're the one arguing that the invisible man exists, then it's up to you to show he exists. At one time, the structure of the eye was considered a pretty firm rebuttal to the atheist. Greater understanding of evolutionary processes debunked that... so the definition moved. Every time he moves it, it's always to someplace where the claims are even less testable. Which would be fine, if he weren't making truth-claims about reality. And no matter what, even when he's wrong, he's really right.

Gah. I say again, Gah.

Friday, May 27, 2011

In answer to your question

Mark Kleiman asks:

Aren’t there any grown-ups left in the GOP?


Next, please....

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

From the inimitable PZ Myers....

When you say you favor increasing individual freedom, you actually mean increasing the individual freedom of healthy white male heterosexuals who have skills that corporate interests find profitable, which, I'm sorry to say, is an extremely narrow slice of our culture, and not necessarily the best element of our society.

And this is what's always left out of the discussion... "more freedom" is usually a code phrase for "more convenience for people like me, particularly if it means I won't have to deal as much with THOSE people...."

Wish-I'd-Thought-Of-That Dept.

[h/t: They Might Be Hipsters]

Friday, May 20, 2011

Corporate Efficiency

Dear Sears PartsDirect:

Thank you very much for the email informing me that the water filter I ordered online has shipped.


Such a degree of inefficiency requires a great deal of effort, and I'm sure you have many bureaucrats dedicated to the job.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Andrew's at it again...

Sullivan piles on the self-pity:

My backing of marriage equality was also the pretext for outing my sex life by leftists who regarded anyone supporting marriage rights having sex when single as some sort of hypocrisy!
No, Andrew. Your sneering condescension toward the immaturity and irresponsibility of the casual-sex crowd, WHILE YOU WERE A PART OF THAT CROWD, was some sort of hypocrisy.

To quote a friend of mine, "Now get down off that cross, we need the wood!"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yes, Laura, It Matters

Laura Miller has a rather disturbing article over at Salon arguing that people criticizing Greg Mortenson for, um, allegedly making up large portions of a so-called memoir are missing the point:

Comparisons to fabricating memoirists like James Frey are misguided. An artful account of the memoirist's own experiences is all that the memoir has to offer its readers; if it doesn't approximate the truth (at the very least as the author saw it), then it's in bad faith.

But what "Three Cups of Tea" provides is something else, a feeling of comradely motivation and a symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson. If he has to massage some facts into a better story in order to create sentimental enthusiasm for his cause, many of his fans are more than willing to give him that. Pointing out that a couple of these stories aren't true strikes them as self-serving nitpicking and pettifoggery that, above all, misses the big picture. "Greg is a man who has done more good for more people than anyone else I know," read one comment posted to an interview with Mortenson about the controversy at OutsideOnline. "Yes, he's fallible. But the work that CAI is doing literally transforms lives."

Got that? You see, an actual memoir should be based more-or-less on the truth, at least as someone remembers it, but Mortenson is writing feel-good stories that encourage you to give to charity and feel better about yourself, so it's all okay. If you think he should be telling more-or-less the truth instead of just making stuff up, you're missing the point because he's a nice person and that's all that matters.

I call bullshit.

For a start, he's not presenting it as "heartwarming stories that are loosely based on events that may or may not be entirely true." He's presenting it as a memoir, as the truth. As what happened. Except he's lying. Doesn't that matter, Laura?

She does point out that part of the controversy is that the charity he runs seems to have been used as his own personal ATM (quoting a source in her story). Yes, that probably is giving it some legs in the media. But saying "he's doing it to raise money for charity so all is forgiven" is part of the problem. Journalism is supposed to be about the truth, not about well-connected people raising money for pet causes under false pretenses.

But you see, the fact that we're making a big deal about the fact that he lied to raise money for a charity that mostly benefits him proves that he's the real victim here:

Yet another mismanaged charity is not an especially buzz-worthy subject. But we love to read about lying authors and negligent publishers and all the other ne'er-do-wells who are dragging our literary culture to hell in a hand basket. ... Lying makes for a fun story full of opportunities for righteous indignation, but cheating at a once-esteemed charity is just a bummer. And the best story always wins.

You see? Those meanies are just picking on him!

Ugh. The classic tribal mentality.