Friday, April 29, 2005

GMO News

This is an early report of a paper coming out in Science claiming that Chinese farmers who use GM rice use less pesticide, have lower rates of pesticide related disease and enjoy increased yields (via botanicalgirl.) If true, this would support a lot of the claims of Monsanto et al.

China is also an important battleground for the GMO fight. Until recently, almost all GMOs have been grown in the US and Canada, with a smidge in Argentina. China was the next developing country to start to use GM seed. In 2002, China, the US, Argentina and Canada grew 99% of GM crops. (James 2002 [.pdf]). Now there are 14 countries listed by GMO advocates as heavily invested in genetic agricultural technology (James 2004, [.pdf]). Success in China will reinforce this trend.

Is there some kind of funder bias with the current study of GMOs in China? Perhaps. The work was funded by Chinese government agencies, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Chinese Academy of Science. This isn't like being funded directly by Monstanto, but it still could lead to charges of bias, as the Party seems committed to GM farming. I'll have to look at the full study to get a better sense.


Your English Skills:

Grammar: 100%

Punctuation: 100%

Vocabulary: 100%

Spelling: 40%

I call foul. The only vocabulary problem I got wrong the last time was the synonym for "ponderous". Now I changed the answer to what they wanted, I got a 100. The answer they were looking for was "gigantic". Here are the definitions from the American Heritage dictionary of the English language

1 Having great weight.
2 Unwieldy from weight or bulk.
3 Lacking grace or fluency; labored and dull: a ponderous speech.

It's from the Latin word pondus, weight. The core meaning of the word is obviously heavy, and other meanings come by metaphorical extension. But heavy is not large. You could not describe a hot air ballon as ponderous. No way.

I went with "hard to understand" on the grounds that someone who is dronning on and on also tends to be hard to follow. Good speaking is clear speaking. I think I am closer to the core meaning than these web quiz guys.

Did I mention that I had an 800 verbal GRE? Don't fucking tell me I don't have a fucking command of the fucking language. Fucker.


Your English Skills:

Grammar: 100%

Punctuation: 100%

Vocabulary: 80%

Spelling: 40%

What the fuck, I only got a fucking 80 on vocab?! My knowledge of words is comprehensive and detailed. Ok, poor spelling thing I know well, but my knowledge of subtle shades of meaning is profound.

It's just because I'm tired. That's it.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

More questions

The Ontology of Money

What is money?

Most days we treat it like a physical object, but we know it is not: the bank can take my bill out of circulation, but I will still have that dollar in my account. Still, the money retains a lot of its object like properties: it can be measured, has an approximate location, it can be divided and put back together.

Sometimes we treat it like a promise: the bank has promised to give me a bill back, although not the same bill I gave them. I trust that merchants will exchange the bill for goods. But money isn't simply a promise, because of all the object-like properties above.

Sometimes money is like a unit of measure, a rather crushing one. Everything can be given a dollar value. As a unit of measure, though, it is weird, because the objective measurement is dependent solely on collective judgment, with no input from physical measuring rods. We don't sit around and debate whether the end of the ruler lines up with the end of the object, or whether we have been putting the thermometer the same distance from a building in each location. We just sit around and shout numbers at each other.

Ok, there is one thing I think I know about money, but I'm not sure I know. My question is simply whether it is true.

Money has no fixed identity over time. For instance, suppose your government decided to open some personal retirement accounts in your name. At the same time, they were busy doing all sorts of government things, including paying current retirees, financing wars, etc. While they were doing these things and opening accounts in your name, they taxes about a third of your paycheck and borrowed a gazillion dollars by issuing bonds to Asian central banks. Am I right to say that there is no real way to say whether your tax dollar went into your account or to a current retiree? (The alternative hypothesis would be that you can say, but only if you adopt the right bookkeeping conventions.)

The stock ticker again

Ok, so even if there are untold masses out there who need hourly updates of stock values, are any of them SLU students? Why does the TV set in the student center display stock prices? Are students day trading? If IBM plummets, will they have to withdraw from school?

Countdown to summer

Hear "Almost Summer" by The Vacant Lot [1991 interview, only link I could find quicly.] I recorded this from a 7" which was itself recorded in scintillating mono.

ok, all I have left to do is [update: I added items. Haven't taken any off yet.]

1. Prep ethics class tomorrow
2. Ethics final review sheet[Punted. Just talked through things in class.]
3. Grade ethics rewrites
4. Write ethics test
5. Grade ethics test
6. Grade ethics community based learning stuff.
7. Write Science:QMR test
8. Grade Science:QMR test
9. Grade old SQMR extra credit
10. Grade Symbolic Logic test
11. Write symbolic logic make ups
12. Grade symbolic logic make ups
13. Respond to email back up.
14. Tabulate and submit all the grades.
15. Do something about all the shit in my office.

Because its...almost summer!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

No really, I have done work today

Via Making Light, the trailer for Serenity

"This is going to get pretty interesting."

"Define interesting."

"'oh god, oh god, we're all going to die'?"


How many people out there really need hourly updates of stock prices? And if you do need hourly updates of stock prices, why are you watching TV? Shouldn't you be at the office trading stocks?

Also, why does the rear light on my bicycle have four settings (flashing, solid, scrolling left to right, bouncing inside to outside)?

I just handed back a major assignment, graded and everything, after working late to finish it. So I'm feeling giddy this afternoon. Forgive me.

Congressional Weirdness

So the house is considering House Resolution 747 (H. R. 748), the "Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act," which is designed to make it more difficult to cross state lines to get an abortion. (via dr. b)

This is a stupid bill, but Rep. Louise Slaughter @ DailyKos points us to something even weirder. The Republicans on the committee renamed all the democratic amendments to the bill, giving them titles like "The Child Predator Protection Amendment". They also changed the summaries of the amendments to distort their content. Here is the video of Slaughter describing the events on the house floor. (Via Maura in VA on the B.Ph.D comment board).

I suppose in adding my two cents I should say something about cheapening political discourse, but as someone who came into political consciosness listening to "California Uber Alles" by the DK's, I'm not really in a position to complain about such things. I do, however, think there is a difference between jokes on the internet and in highly satirical artwork and distorting the legistlative process. Honestly, this all just seems fucked up to me.

Other links:

Here is Naral's summary of the bill. Here is where you can email your representative.

Shout outs to profgrrl and bridgett

I just stole two comments from other internet denziens in class.

Profgrrl used a cooking metaphor to describe good writing: you don't just throw ingredients in because you have them around, they have to go with the meal. In my case, I had to pry a student away from a discussion that was important to him, but not relevant to his paper. "You may like garlic a whole awful lot," I said, "but would you use it in an ice cream sunday?"

(Sadly, although I recognize this as good writing advice, I still don't really follow it in my cooking. Whenever I cook, I put in every kind of food I like. And I fry it. As a result, I really only make one dish: things in the fridge stir fry. It's not that bad really.)

Bridgett, in the comments on my complaints about economics, quoted DeNiro in the movie Ronin "The map is not the terrain." Today I told my scientific methods class that this is one of the lessons they should take away from the course.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Fog of Grading

I'm grading along and having trouble concentrating. I read something like this

According to the previously accepeted "standard" model, blah blah blah that these authors present.

There isn't a standard model at issue in this problem. Something is amiss in the answer. I should just take a point off and move on. But I read the sentence again.

According to the previously accepeted "standard" model, the members of these articles blah blah blah that these authors present.

What? The members of the articles? I must not have read this right. I have now spent a noticible amount of time staring at this sentence, and I still haven't processed it correctly. Ok, this time I am going to read the whole sentence. If I concentrate, and don't skim, I can judge the sentence well.

According to the previously accepted "standard" model, the members of these articles and feeling about abortion are that a number of different positives [aaargh!! can't. finish. sentence.]

That didn't compute at all. One more time.

According to the previously accepeted "standard" model, the members of these articles and feeling about abortion are that a number of different positives and a number of different negatives that these authors present.

Ok. It's not just me. That didn't make any sense.

How do other people manage to grade 15-20 tests an hour? Just trying to cope emotionally with a single poorly constructed sentence can take me 10 minutes.

My PS to Hillary.

Well, it looks like my attempt at humor failed. I hate it when that happens. The post below has been updated accordingly.

Whether "bitch slap" is sexist or racist is an interesting linguistic and philosophical question, one that I will blog on when I get my life back. I also wanted to respond to Marisa on the origins of the anti-abortion movement in the US, which I have been reading on. I also want to blog on Space 1999, which I finally got to watch an episode of last night. None of this is going to happen, though. I will probably be grading the rest of my life.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A level of rock artistry I aspire to

Thomas, whose impending fatherhood I just mentioned, links to this video of a cover of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by the Norwegian band Hurra Torpedo. My god, this is amazing.

Thomas also sent this nice link to what may be your only chance to smash a window of a mies van der rohe building.

So yeah, congratulate thomas on his impending fatherhood.

Big congratulations!

Lorie and Thomas (of Flocculent Device) are in a family way!! They are keeping a blog of the pregnancy here. Give them big love.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Special Blog-Only Post Script to Sen. Clinton

Hillary, baby,

You know I love you. You know I'm with you in '08 or '12, or whenever. But you gotta do me a favor. It will help you too. I think it will, "energize your base," as they say. I want you to bitch slap nonviolently resist Rick Santorum. I don't mean that figuratively. Slap him. Upside the head. On C-Span. IT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

Love ya,


Dear Senator Clinton,

The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton
United States Senate
476 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Fax: (202) 228-0282
Voice: (202) 224-4451

April 22, 2005

Dear Senator Clinton,

Senator Santorum has recently introduced S 786 IS1S, a bill that would block the National Weather Service from releasing any information to the public for free that would otherwise be sold for profit by private companies like Accuweather. Please oppose this brazen attempt to help a special interest group profit from work done with our tax dollars.

Accuweather and similar organizations get most of their information from the National Weather Service. If all weather information had to pass through these companies, the taxpayer would be paying for the information twice, once payment to the government so that they can do the actual work of gathering the data, and once to a private sector firm for the privilege of seeing what we already paid for.

Although the bill contains an exception for issuing notices about weather emergencies, such as hurricanes, sealing even ordinary weather information will cause deaths, because people in precarious situations—those at sea, in the air, or in the wilderness—can be killed by ordinary weather systems.

The rationale for this bill also makes no sense. The government provides services all the time that compete with the private sector, services like the post office and public schools. When the government can do something well it should be able to do it.

Finally, anyone can easily discover Sen. Santorum’s true motivation for this bill: the $3550.00 contribution he received from Accuweather is, for now at least, free public information.

Please fight the Republican frenzy to dismantle every effective government project.


Rob Loftis

Proposal to cut off free weather data

Hey look, here is a useful government function that a lot of people depend on. Let’s destroy it!

Ok, I had cancelled my usual Friday Big Research Day to catch up on grading, but this has me so pissed I need to spend at least an hour gather information and writing letters. It isn't the biggest injustice in the world; it is just the kind of little stupid thing that republicans do that makes life suck for everyone.

They want to stop the National Weather Service from releasing weather data for free. (via Majikthise and /.) See Accuweather and the Weather Channel sell that data. When the national weather service gives away the data, it interferes with Accuweather's right to repackage the data and sell it. Here's the text of the bill.

The bill says that NWS can only release data in the event of an emergency, like a hurricane or flood, or when required to by international treaty. But as a /.er points out people die all the time from lack of weather information--people at sea on in the air for instance--even when there isn't an emergency. The exception for disasters is barely a fig leaf. It won't protect public safety much at all.

Well, most of the good arguments can be found at Lindsay's site and on /. The bill would make us pay for our data twice. Once in our taxes to support the collection of it, and once when Accuweather sells the data back to us. This bill is like banning public schools because they compete with private schools, or banning the post office because it competes with FedEx.

Here is the record of accuweather's campaign contributions to Santorum. Check out this kind of information now, before someone decides that you have to pay a middleman for it.

Alright, I'm going to eat my lunch, rewrite my comments in a sane fashion and send them to my senators and local newspapers, and then grade.

Oh yes. And the senator responsible for this bill is Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum. Remember that. When you think of who should be targeted to be ousted from the Senate in the next election, remember that Rick Santorum introduced this bill.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

To the Editor

[ has a feature where you can write the editors of your local paper to fight the nuclear option. They'll tell you which local paper has the highest circulation and whether anyone has written to it yet. This is my letter to North Country This Week. I know I should be grading, but the discussion of creeping fascism on Bitch PhD was too much for me. You should all speak out too.]

To the Editor

A crucial vote is coming up in the senate, one that not everyone may be aware of, depending on the news sources you read. A radical segment of the Republican party is trying to eliminate the filibuster from the rules of the senate so that judges may be appointed by a simple majority, rather than 60 votes. The far right wing of the party failed to get all their judicial appointments last term, because they couldn’t win the support of the moderates in their own party. As a result, they have decided to change the rules so that they do not need the support of moderates.

This change is important to everyone, including people in the North Country, because it is the lynchpin of a far right wing campaign to destroy the independence of the judiciary. We need judges who interpret the law, rather than follow the whims of a political minority. The judges in the Schiavo case stood up for the law against political pressure, and now the radical right is trying to punish the whole judicial branch. If they succeed everyone will suffer.

Rob Loftis
28 Sate St.
Canton, NY 13617

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Yesterday my way geeky Space 1999 box set arrived in the mail. I wanted to watch an episode last night, but there simply was no time. I got home from work at 6:15, watched Caroline to 9:45 and finished class prep for today at 10:15. By then I was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. I hate the fact that the only time I have to myself is the span between when Caroline falls asleep and when I fall asleep. (And when I steal time from work to blog.)

Ok, all I'm going to do in this post is complain. Since others will have little motivation to read this, I will put it under the fold

So here's what I have to do:

1. Prepare a quiz for tomorrow
2. Grade the late ethics papers so that students can turn in their rewrites.
3. Grade the stack of relfection papers from the ethics students' community based learning projects
4. Grade the chapter 7 and 8 homework for the Science: Questions, Methods, Reflections class

5. Grade the last two field projects for the Science:QMR course
6. Grade the test on Giere that just came in from the Science: QMR course.

The science QMR students have been complaining that I give them too much work. I have actually agreed with them several times, and changed assigments accordingly. The major peice of evidence that I underestimated the amount of homework I was giving out: I can't keep up with the grading.

This is what I'd rather be doing:

1. Watching Space 1999. (People say the series sucked because it was cheesy and made no sense. I think these are both virtues in sci fi.)
2. Read my big geeky ant book. (It also came in the mail recently. My first project is simply to figure out how I want to approach the book. I'm thinking of having a preliminary period where I just look at the pretty pictures.)
3. Read more about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. (The website has a lot of the legible, already deciphered Papyri online. I've always been amazed that the works of the greeks have come down to us at all, even in the distorted form we have them, and always wanted to learn more about the inferences that were made in reconstructing the books that sit on my shelf.)

Ok, basically, I want to totally geek out, but I have to grade instead.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri

UPDATE: The official website for the project is here.

Yesterday the Independent ran an article about the recent deciphering of the oxyrhynchus papyri, a trove of ancient documents discovered in the 19th century that were long considered too damaged to read. Scientists at Oxford and BYU have now used infrared and what sounds like image sharpening software to render them legible. Here's the description from The Independent:

The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy - the Epigonoi ("Progeny") by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles almost certainly await discovery.

Today Salon's Andrew Leonard rhapsodises about it and provides links to a wired story about the promises for future discoveries.

Monday, April 18, 2005

On the appalling failure of the Scandinavians to consume conspicuously

You would think from this headline "We're Rich, You're Not. End of Story." that the article would be making fun of someone who bragged about wealth. But no. It is a whole New York Times article about how the US is actually wealthier than the Scandenavian countries.

But wait, isn't Norway number one on the human development index, and aren't we number 8?

Sure, but what you don't know is that the Norwegians have to bring their lunch to work.

One image in particular sticks in my mind. In a Norwegian language class, my teacher illustrated the meaning of the word matpakke - "packed lunch" - by reaching into her backpack and pulling out a hero sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It was her lunch. She held it up for all to see.

Yes, teachers are underpaid everywhere. But in Norway the matpakke is ubiquitous, from classroom to boardroom. In New York, an office worker might pop out at lunchtime to a deli; in Paris, she might enjoy quiche and a glass of wine at a brasserie. In Norway, she will sit at her desk with a sandwich from home.

Because nothing is a better indicator of your quality of life then whether you will casually by 5 dollars for a cup of coffee and a muffin.

But wait, there's more. The norwegians don't have pimped out cars like we do:

After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York - his first trip outside of Europe - he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in "Moscow on the Hudson."

Wow, and I bet almost no one in Norway drives a Chevy Tahoe remodeled to look vaguely like a humvee. Loosers. And who needs universal healtcare when we have cheap pizza?

Even the humblest of meals - a large pizza delivered from Oslo's most popular pizza joint - will run from $34 to $48, including delivery fee and a 25 percent value added tax

Oh but wait, surely the author can give us real numbers to back up his claim of norwegian poverty. And he does. He cites the holy grail of all economic indicators: growth!

Economic growth in the last 25 years has been 3 percent per annum in the U.S., compared to 2.2 percent in the E.U. That means that the American economy has almost doubled, whereas the E.U. economy has grown by slightly more than half. The purchasing power in the U.S. is $36,100 per capita, and in the E.U. $26,000 - and the gap is constantly widening.

Why worry about indicators that track literacy or women's rights when we can focus on the one thing that makes a country great: cash cash cash. The fact that the cash is in the hands of a very few, and they mostly use it to buy status symbols that bring only superficial satisfaction is irrelevant. In the end, the economy is a game and GDP is the score! Your happiness is irrelevant!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Steven D. Levitt

Molly sends along a little piece by John Tierney at the NYT on Steven D. Levitt, the U chicago economist mentioned by Bridgett in the comments a few posts back. The focus is again on his odd claim about abortion and crime rates. Perhaps I will make my scientific methods class examine this stuff.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

things that make us uncomforatble, things that should be illegal, and more important categories.

There is a very interesting discussion on bitch PhD on people who express discomfort with certain categories of abortion. The esteemed Dr. B denounces people who say "I'm pro choice, but I'm comfortable with ____" (third trimester abortion, abortion for convenience, etc.) Bitch thinks that such sentiments show distrust for women's ability to make moral decisions. The discussion picks up on this post at Sappho's breathing, and has a good comment board.

But there is something very very wrong with the way the whole issue is being framed. The debate is about two categories "things I feel uncomfortable with" and "things that should be illegal" Part of what Bitch is doing is rightly pointing out that discomfort can't be legislated. But the rhetoric of the situation is all wrong. For starters, there are things which I don't just feel uncomfortable with, but actually know to be motherfucking wrong, but which I cannot morally legislate or use any coercive means to change. The standard example I use in classes is my former roommate Pete, who called is own mother a cunt. His own mother. because she wouldn't give him for free an old car she wanted to sell. What can I do when I hear Pete call is own mother a cunt on the phone? Say "Dude, don't call your mom a cunt." That's about it.

There are more serious examples. I think that eating meat is one of the gravest wrongs of modern society, but my moral right to legislate such issues is quite restricted. (My academic project for the summer is to more carefully delineate this.)

Dr. B might say at this point that I am emphasizing my abstract concerns about potential moral categories over people's real lives. I don't think so, though. Basically, I am worried about situations where any attempt to developed a nuanced position is viewed as treason. Have you ever spend time in a community where people keep trying to one-up each other for how environmental they are? or anarchist? or Punk rock? It fucking sucks. It sucks because you are made to feel guilty for thinking. It sucks because it breeds purges and witch hunts. It sucks because the truth sometimes does lie in the middle.

The whole reason why we cannot use coercive measures to enforce all aspects of morality is to allow for reasoned discussion on difficult issues. Ultimately, this is exactly what the religious right does not want. Standing up for open debate is always a blow against fundamentalism.

Another reason why it is important to engage in moral debate even when issues of law are not at stake is that people need to be able to discuss what they should do without having to discuss what they have the right to do. In classes on abortion I often ask students to consider the advice they would give to a loved one in facing an abortion decision. The assumption in these discussions is that the abortion would be safe and legal, (an idealization from the real world, to be sure.) Even with this assumption, there are things that need to be thought about.

The human experience is simply impoverished if we imagine that there is nothing besides what the law allows and are completely random decisions among the options that the law allows. We are left little creatures of whim. "I think I will eat a hot dog." "I think I will call my own mother a cunt."

In the comments Bitch suggests that questioning the morality of some abortions is not a neutral act, because it gives the right the opportunity to introduce ideas like conscience clauses for pharmacists, etc. On the one hand, she is right. It is not a neutral act, because the environment has become so polarized. On the other hand, we would all be better off if it were a neutral act. At the very least, we need to create a social space where these issues can be discussed.

One final thing that deserves its own post but won’t get one. If you are going to make something a litmus test for being a good feminist, abortion is a pretty decent choice. But here’s a better one: access to birth control and reliable information on sexual health. Many feminists say that the worst disaster of the Bush administration would be overturning Roe. v. Wade. That would suck, but something even suckier has already happened: the spread of abstinence only education all over America and in fact across the globe.

Now you might be thinking: oh, this is the “if people only had access to birth control, we wouldn’t have to deal with abortion” line. Its not. In fact, according to the book I am reading now access to birth control can actually increase the abortion rate.

The problem is that restricting access to birth control and decent sexual information hurts far more women, and hurts them far more deeply, than restricting access to abortion. About 1.5 million women need an abortion every year, and would suffer without one. But abstinence only education has completely screwed up the minds of a whole generation. And in Africa, it *kills* thousands of people every day.

Abortion became a political issue as a reaction to the feminists movement of the 19th century. (Did you know there were no abortion laws in the US before then? Did you ever wonder why the bible never mentions abortion at all?) The anti-abortion movement is entirely an attempt to control women’s sexuality. If my sisters will allow a man to offer a suggestion, I would say that you keep to focus on the core issue. Don’t let a symbol of sexual autonomy get in the way of protecting the rest of sexual autonomy.

Friday, April 15, 2005

random scholarly paper generators

ok, I'm supposed to be home right now doing childcare--I'm 15 minutes late--but check this out, via languagelog, there is a whole genre out there of text generators devoted to creating random scholarly papers using something called a "context free grammar"

This generates articles in computer science.

This generates articles in postmodern lit theory.

this generates undergraduate papers (I think my students have used it)

I am pleased to see that a hard science like CS can generate as much gobbledygook as literary criticism and undergraduates.

Ok, now I go home.

You aren't losing the self, you're gaining the other (dream blog)

I dreamt I was looking at a bunch of sculptures of members of my family, and I noticed they all had strange growths on the back of the head. “They’re extra brains,” I realize, “that runs in your family.” Then I look in the mirror and see that I am growing an extra brain on my neck. It looks like a pile of turds with whiteheads on the ends, like they were zits. I don’t want it, not because it is ugly, but because I don’t want to share my body with someone else. “Actually, many people get along with their extra brains. If you two become close enough personally, you can completely integrate your functioning.”

I’m not sure I want to integrate my brain with another. Then I see a student of mine, JL. “I’ve been integrated with the hive mind for about a year,” he says, “its great. You aren’t losing yourself, you’re gaining the other.” I think about popping the turds on my neck. I look in the mirror and see that the extra brain has sprouted little waving tentacles.

I wake up and remember that tiny Caroline has pissed in the family bed.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

grading blogging

I hate grading. To motivate getting through this stack of papers, I’m going to reward myself by writing a blog post every time I get to a milestone. My first milestone is fairly pathetic. I have successfully graded a paper.

This isn’t quite as pathetic as it sounds, though, because I grade *very* thoroughly. I wrote 770 words of comments on a 2,317 word paper. I have always written a lot of comments, and for a long time considered it a great flaw. When I was teaching 120-150 students a semester, it meant that grading sucked away most of my life. It is, I’m sure, part of the reason why I am 6 years out of grad school, and have only two publications to speak of.

Now that I am teaching 45-60 students a semester, I have let myself totally indulge in extensive commenting. I almost can afford the time, and the university I’m at seems to appreciate it.

Now if only the students would actually learn something.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Return of the Sitting Practice

One of the big risks when I first sit down for meditation is that I will begin composing a blog post in my head. I don't have a worked out philosophy of what I am doing when I meditate, but planning what to do the next time I sit in front of a computer is not a part of it.

Today I sat down with the zen group, the little bell rang, and I began to write a blog entry in my head. I comment on this to myself: "I am writing a blog post in my head. I will let this pass."

Then I find myself preparing logic questions for tomorrow's quiz. I comment on this to myself: "I am trying to solve a problem in first order logic in my head. I would let this pass, but running over truth tables actually seems sort of meditative." So I begin devising introduction and elimination rules for the nand. This is actually more creative than meditative, but I do not realize how far I am from being mindful until I get this sudden urge to stand up. Why do I have an urge to stand? Because I solved a problem I was working on. Having completed something, I feel like I should stand. This is not mindfulness.

So I begin to recite in my head the reference columns from a truth table: True False True False True False True False True True False False True True False False. My foot is falling asleep. I shouldn't have sat in half lotus. True True True True False False False False. At least my sinuses are clear TFTFTFTF TTFFTTFF TTTTFFFF


the bell. Walking meditation. I try to be mindful of sensation returning to my leg.

There is a reading about coming out of zen medidation. You should be mindful here. If you have been daydreaming, the bell will startle you. I'm not sure I follow what the author says next. It seems he wants us to carry our medidation into the rest of our lives, and not simply snap back to our daily routine. Maybe I should blog medidation. Maybe writing blogs while meditating isn't so bad.

More sitting. No, I'm wrong. Its silly to think you can be mindful and compose at the same time. TTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFF foot asleep TTFFTTFFTTFFTTFF the guy accros from me checks his watch. I never allow myself to check my watch TTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFF So much time in buddhism. TTFFTTFFTTFFTTFF maybe I should be a realist about temporal passage. TTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFFTTFF

Backlog of Caroline Blogging

"Daddy, my legs are broken"

I've been trying to get Caroline to walk places rather than making me carry her. When she asks me to carry her I frequently say "what's wrong, are your legs broken?" She very quickly learned to say "Yes my yegs are broken." Shortly after that "my yegs are broken" became the new way to say "pick me up." I can hear her from across the playground "Daaa-deee my yegs are broken."

notes on language development

Note that above legs are "yegs." She's always had trouble with L's, but for a long time wasn't sure how to deal with it. Some L's became D's. (Pillow --> Piddow). Other L's became Y's. (Look at me! --> yooka me!) Recently she's settled on Y for all L sounds. (Piddow --> piyow).

She is still having trouble with genders. People are he or she indiscriminantly. I'm not actually sure I want to correct her on this. Her world seems to have a more level playing field. Also, sometimes I'm Mommy and Molly is Daddy. I like that too, although I probably don't deserve the title "Mommy"

The possesive pronouns are "yours" "ours" and "mines"

Caroline Dreams

Last night I had the Night of the Living Dead Dream. Most of my dreams are based on horror movies. For nearly a decade, I was haunted by the Invasion of the Body Snatchers Dream. The first body snatchers movie I saw was the 1978 version with Donald Southerland, Brooke Adams & Leonard Nemoy. I probably didn't see it until it was shown on TV--1979? 1980? Well, from then until I was in grad school, I dreamt of invasions by pod people. It helped too that I read Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music.

In the early 90s I switched to the Night of the Living Dead Dream. I actually think there are deep psychological reasons for this, although I won't get into them now. For 10 years, though, the NotLD dream has just been about fleeing from zombies. Last night I was visited by a dream which encorporated the most unsettling moment from George Romero's 1968 classic: the zombification of a little girl. In my dream, Caroline was turned into a Zombie--a change symbolized by the outbreak of bloody pustules on her face. Because she became a zombie, George Bush had to set her on fire. "Oh my tiny caroline" I said, and woke to find her sleeping next to me.

Sonic Youth

It has been over 10 years since I saw Sonic Youth live. I miss that. This says that they've only been getting better.

Monday, April 11, 2005

More on the Confronting the Judicial War on Faith conference

Michelle Goldberg at Salon has a write up.

more scary people

Scarborough, a close ally of DeLay ... [is] the author of a booklet titled "In Defense of … Mixing Church and State." It argues that the belief that the Constitution provides for separation of church and state is "a lie introduced by Satan and fostered by the courts. Unfortunately, it is embraced by the American public to our shame and disgrace, and that lie has led us to the edge of the abyss."

[conference speaker Howard Philips is a follower of "Christian Reconstructionism"] Christian Reconstructionism calls for a system that is both radically decentralized, with most government functions devolved to the county level, and socially totalitarian. It calls for the death penalty for homosexuals, abortion doctors and women guilty of "unchastity before marriage," among other moral crimes. To be fair, Phillips told me that "just because a crime is capital doesn't mean you must impose the death penalty. It means it's an option." Public humiliation, he said, could sometimes be used instead.

Some evaluation from Goldberg

It is a challenge to know how seriously to take this sort of thing. The world inhabited by most of those at the conference seems so at odds with empirical reality that one expects it to collapse around them. With each new lunacy perpetrated by religious fundamentalists, progressives tell each other that any second the pendulum will swing the other way and some equilibrium will return to our national life. They've been telling each other that for more than four years. But the influence of religious authoritarianism keeps growing.

Is it just me?

About six months ago I switched to a mode where most the political journalism I read is filtered through blogs. My primary sources have remained roughly the same: NYT, WaPo, Salon, NPR. But now I typically read articles because they were linked to by echidne, J&B, etc.

I have also come to believe in the last six months that the political situation right now is worse than it has ever been in my lifetime, to the extent that I seriously fear for the future of the country and the safety of my family.

Example: Both Echidne and J&B link to this story in the Washington Post about a meeting of the most important conservative activists in the country, where they began to plan the impeachment of Justice Kennedy for his incorrect rulings on executing juveniles and sodomy laws. Phyllis Schlafly, who first rose to fame by touring the country explaining how women should stay at home, introduced the idea of impeachment. Another speaker suggested that Kennedy "upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law." Another speaker suggested massive purges of the judiciary "If about 40 of them get impeached, suddenly a lot of these guys would be retiring."

Most of the blogs who link to the story, though, focus on the guy who quoted Stalin approvingly. This is from the Milbank article in WaPo:

Ominously, Vieira continued by saying his "bottom line" for dealing with the Supreme Court comes from Joseph Stalin. "He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem,' " Vieira said.

The full Stalin quote, for those who don't recognize it, is "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem." Presumably, Vieira had in mind something less extreme than Stalin did and was not actually advocating violence. But then, these are scary times for the judiciary. An anti-judge furor may help confirm President Bush's judicial nominees, but it also has the potential to turn ugly.

The one that really squeed me out, though, is this guy Farris, who said that "he would block judicial power by abolishing the concept of binding judicial precedents, by allowing Congress to vacate court decisions"

Abolish precedent and allow congress to overturn court decisions at will? How is that not simply abolishing the rule of law and replacing it with the rule of men? There would be nothing forcing the government to be consistent or fair. Just because the law had always said before that a patient, via a proxy can refuse medical treatment, doesn't mean that congress can't sweep down in any individual case and mandate a feeding tube.

ok, ok, you say, these are just fringe characters. No one is really going to abolish the rule of law in the US. But there were two US representatives there. Tom The Hammer DeLay would have been there, but he had to go to the Pope's funeral. These people scare me.

Of course, I wouldn't have read about them if I relied just on the Washington Post to filter my news. WaPo didn't put the story on the front page. Its only because I get my news filtered by a mother of two living in Singapore and a woman who claims to be a Greek Snake Goddess that I even heard about this.

So here's my question, before I go back to actually doing my job. What combination of the following is true:

1. Things have really gotten a lot worse recently.
2. Things have always been this bad, you just didn't know it because you had bad news filters.
3. Things aren't that bad--not breakdown of civilized society bad, just the ordinary oppression of the weak bad.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Oil Drum

The Oil Drum is a new blog devoted to discussion of the Hubbert's peak, the moment when oil production in a given finite area starts to decline, because the oil in the ground has simply been exhausted. M. King Hubbert predicted in 1949 that oil production in the lower 48 states would reach a peak in 1975 and decline thereafter. As the cliche goes, everyone laughed at the time. The actual peak of production was 1972.

The whole earth, like the lower 48 states, is a finite area. Estimates for the time world oil production peaks range from 5 years ago to ten years in the future. (The thing about peaks is that you don't know you've reached one until well afterwards.) Once you reach the far side of Hubbert's peak, production never increases again. As the belt tightens, you see more economic disruption, more wars. We don't have to exhaust all the oil on earth to crash the global economy. We might be doing it right now.

So far I've assigned two books on Hubbert's peak to my environmental classes. Ken Deffeyes' Hubbbert's Peak is a folksy volume written by an oil geologist who has done some of the actual calculations for the time of the global Hubbert's peak. It's ok, but spends too much time trying to be cute. David Goodstein Out of Gas strikes a more alarmist tone, perhaps too alarmist: when he gave a lecture over at Clarkson U, he predicted the end of human civilization. Both books spend too much time explaining general science principles (how oil is formed, how all engergy comes from the sun) that aren't relevant to the current situation. I'm still looking for a good book to assign on this topic.

In any case, I welcome the new blog.

Oh, and since I've been bitching about economists lately, I want to mention one of my least favorite a priori economic arguments: the one where all resources are unlimited. See, as a resource becomes scarser, the price of it goes up, which drives people to find new ways to dig up the resource, which makes the resource more plentiful again. The last time I read this one, I saw it from Wilfred Beckerman. I am not simplyfing the argument all that much. The more sophisticated versions simply describe a greater number of feedback mechanisms which restore plentitude once prices begin to go up.

As with other shitty economic arguments--like the one where significant race and gender bias in hiring could never exist or the one where all poluting industries should be moved to poor countries--this argument works by simply ignoring the real world in favor of the idealized representation of the real world. The real world counterparts to the feedback mechanisms described in the all-resources-are-unlimited argument correspond to very painful shifts in the way humans derive their living from the earth. There are two sorts of shifts that we can actually engage in once oil starts to decline. The first is the change to more exotic forms of oil--oil shale, heavy oil--that are too expensive to produce now, but won't be once gas is 5 dollars a gallon in the US. Lets also include increased reliance on natural gas and coal in this category, since it all boils down to "continuiung to use the fossils." The other option is a shift to renewables like wind and solar. (Interestingly, from the point of view of the all-resources-are-unlimted argument both of these shifts are lumped together, because "resource" is defined by what the entity does for the economy, not what it is made of. So while to you and me changing from oil to wind is a big shift, the economist is blind to it.)

The all-resources-are-unlimited argument would have you think that the government needs to take no action in response to Hubbert's peak, because the market will simply force us to find a better resource. This attitude looks completely assinine when faced with the actual options in front of us. Option one, the shift to heavy oil, oil shale, etc., is a dead end, because eventually you will simply run out of oil to squeeze out of the stones. Economic abstractions dead end in geology and physics. Natural gas, too, has a Hubbert's peak, and it is only a couple decades after the peak for oil. Coal does not have a near future Hubbert's peak, but it is not a good option for people who like living on a planet cooler than Venus. Option two, the switch to renewables, is exactly what we environmentalists have been arguing for. The problem is that this option will not be taken unless the world's governments act to take it. The all-resources-are-unlimited argument would have you believe that we will move to renewables when the market lets us know it is time (much the same way the cardinals will elect the new pope that God moves them to elect.) This is like sitting in a burning house and saying "When the flames are actually licking my ass, I will probably be motivated to move." True, you will move when the flames touch your skin, but wouldn't a sane person leave the house much sooner?

I say that when dealing with human society we should be careful empiricists. Economists may tell you that as oil becomes scarse, we will simply switch to a new resource, but all I've seen the market give us is war.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Econ and Data (Calming Down)

Ok, my worry about my attack on econ was that I would make the same mistakes that anti-evolutionists do, which all ultimately stem from not knowing the field. I certainly drew the same response from SLU's economist, Steve Horwitz, that PZ Meyers typically gives evolutionists anti-evolutionists. [Typo corrected after the first post.]

So maybe its time I talk more reasonably. I should concede that there are empirical data that are used to verify economic models.

Google quicly reveals that Springer-Verlag publishes a journal called Empirical Economics. Science has an article this week about an experiment which combines a standard game used in economics experiments with neuroimaging technology. You know the kind of game--where you are given a certain amount of money and you have choices like cooperating or not cooperating, and diffferenc choices lead to different payoffs. The very fact that I can refer to a "standard game" used in economics shows that there is data here.

What bothers me is that data in econ always comes from labratory situations, like the game in the neuroimaging examples, or from parts of society that have established rules based on economic principles, places like stock markets. Economic models work on the parts of human existence that are designed on economic models.

The problem is that people who use economic arguments often claim more than this. A commentor on the Bitch discussion began his post by reminding us that economics is not just about money, it is really a branch of sociology. Econ 101, as I understand it, begins with the claim the economics is the study of the distribution of scarse resources.

See, that's the problem. If economics were only about the money, than it would work. It is not very good as a sociological theory or as a theory of scarse resources in general. As far as I can tell you don't get succesfull predictions in contexts that are not directly about money. The same commentor on B PhD (haloscan is down, so I can't link to him) said that we should not shy away from applying economic models to the family. But this is precisely the point where econ makes no good predictions. Psych and Sociology can tell us things about the risk factors for domestic violence for instance (family background, alcoholism, loss of external support systems, economic stress.) Models that assume people are idealy rational preference maximizers have no comparible success.

This is why we can't let economic language frame policy debates--for instance by arguing for public support for children because children are a "public good". Economic arguments can play a role in determining the best means to ends once the goals are established, e.g. how to pay for public support for children once we agree that it is the only decent human thing to do, thus avoiding the dire consequences Steve warns of. But we shouldn't act like most of our lives are made up of economic transactions. Because they aren't, and we wouldn't want them to be.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Can't concentrate...must rant on the internet

Over at Bitch Ph.D there is a discussion of economic arguments for public support of children's well being. I have weighed in against the whole idea of economic arguments, and in the process said things like "economics is simply degenerate utilitarianism." This is a harsh generalization, and I can't help but think that someone is going to take me down for it. The thing is, I believe this harsh generalization, and several others, including "If economists could successfully distinguish reality from their models of reality, the whole enterprise would crumble."

So I'm supposed to be working now, but I can't, because I'm wondering if I could really defend these claims. Part of the concern stems from the audacity of attacking a whole discipline. In some ways I am like the anti-evolutionists PZ Meyers bitches about, or the religiously minded opponent of relativity theory recently refuted by Sean Carroll. Those folks never understand the science they are critiquing, leading them to endlessly repeat arguments long ago refuted and ignore mountains of empirical data.

Still, you can’t adopt a general rule like “never complain about a science so established it has its own department in the university.” After all, we would be living in a unique moment in history if every single intellectual enterprise was on the right track. Someone out there has to be counting the angels on the head of a pin, or trying to measure the density of the luminiferous ether. I think it is the economists.

Ok, I’m supposed to be working, so I can’t post a full critique of economic science. I’m certain someone else has done it better elsewhere anyway. Instead I’ll just mention one standard complaint, which will hopefully clear this set of ideas from my head, so I can actually work.

A standard complaint about economists is that they have an unrealistic picture of human nature. They are simultaneously far too pessimistic about human morality and far too optimistic about human rationality. I’ve yet to see a good rebuttal of this criticism, although perhaps I am missing the equivalent of the evolution FAQ that PZ frequently links to. Typically economists stick to defending their pessimistic assumptions about human morality, because they can paint people like me as Pollyannas. When people do reply to the problems with assuming people are ideally rational, they point to economists who assume things like asymmetric access to information.

The problem is that this model only fits very limited sections of human behavior—typically those that were influenced by economists in their formation. You can’t make sense of basic human activities like childrearing or blogging with these assumptions. Childrearing is based on emotions like care which are neither selfish nor rational. Blogging is rational, at least when I do it, but it is what Habermas calls communicative rationality, not economic rationality.

Fuck, at this point I need data. I should get me some of that. But really I should get to work.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

a reality full of very bad people

"Now a reality full of very bad people has reached the technology top and threatens the lives of everyone in every multiple reality."

Query Letters I Love is an anonymous blog by someone in the movie industry that chronicles the really lame script proposals the authors have to read.

I love the blog, but half the time, I think that the movie should actually be made. I would watch this one but only if the effects budget were low and all the characters spoke like the screenwriter.

What should I read this summer?

It is never too early to begin daydreaming about the end of the semester. This year, for the first time in like a million years, I have not been suckered into any summer teaching. This summer, I am going to publish! No, really!

Of course, the other thing that will happen this summer is the arrival of a second needy dwarf in our home. Still, I think my schedule will be flexible enough that I will be able to get some good reading in. This summer I hope to read a book for its own sake. Reading a book for its own sake is like reading a book for pleasure, only without the "for pleasure" part. Its the sort of reading where one receives what Alsdair MacIntyre called "the goods internal to the practice." Its a sort of reading that I don't get the chance to do much anymore.

The question is: what to read? Here are some candidates:

See full post

E.O. Wilson The Ants (or maybe Journey to the Ants)All last summer caroline and I would play a game where I coaxed an ant to crawl up on a leaf. Ants are cool and I've always wanted more in-depth knowledge of a single organism.

Evan Eisenberg Ecology of Eden We were reading Second Nature by Michael Pollan, a book and author I really like, in a faculty reading group, and someone said that everything Pollan says is said in the first eighth of the Ecology of Eden, which makes me want to read the Ecology of Eden.

e.e. cummings Complete Poems. I have never read eleven hundred pages of poetry straight through before.

Something by Ian Hacking I was reading his recent article in the New York Review of Schnooks and I realized he'd be my favorite living philosopher, if only I'd read a whole book by him. I'm thinking either The Social Construction of What? or Rewriting the Soul

Robert A. Wilson Genes and the Agents of Life Picked this up at the last APA. An interesting and profound topic.

Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker The First Idea. Shankar used to work on Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics. Then he worked with primates on language. Now he was written this. I think he and I have the exact same perspective on this problem. It should be a good read.

Heike Wiese Numbers Language and the Human Mind This is the kind of book I wanted to read more of when I was working on my dissertation. There was less of this then than there is now.

Something by or about Coetzee. Molly gave me a bunch more of this books for x-mas. Also this just came out, which in title at least fits my theme for the summer.

Well, those are my options. I'm also starting to keep lists of what books I have read cover to cover each semester. So far

Summer 2004:
Paul Thompson Spirit in the Soil
Fall 2004: Huxley, Island; Carlson and Berleant, eds. The Aesthetics of Natural Environments; Coetzee Elizabeth Costello (second full read.)
Spring 2005: Lloyd The Case of the Female Orgasm; Liszka Moral Competence.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Slow leak spending

So this morning I decided to see how long I could go without spending any money. I've long known that most of my profligacy comes from slow-leak kind of spending, the sort of thing where I say "I'm bored with work. I think I will duck across the street and get a muffin." So I leave for the office this morning with a sandwich in a Tupperware and a thermos full of coffee and no reason to go across the street to buy anything. But I ate the sandwich and drank the coffee. And I'm still hungry.

So I'm thinking...well, if I went across the street and bought trail mix, that would be eating well, which would be kind of virtuous. So maybe...

Well, I wanted to know how long I could go without spending money. If I buy trail mix, the answer will be "four hours." Healthy or not, it is still pathetic.

I wonder if there is some event on campus with free food.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

McGee on Shiavo's Bulimia

Dying for Food


Terri Schiavo's heart attack was, ultimately, a result of the lack of resources for the treatment of several of the known side effects of eating disorders. There was a lack of support, a lack of comprehensive health care, and a lack of awareness. What society was ready to offer her is food, and images of 'thin'. And indeed, that is all anyone outside her hospice offered her at the end of her life: food, pictures of vitality, and an entreaty to endure.

And yes, this blog is an echo chamber for