Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map

If the Internet were a person, her achievements would be myriad: community-based knowledge creation, an expansive index of fetish pornography, instant access to a world of current events, free real-time communication with anyone one the planet, and universal access to massive libraries of publicly-funded data reserves! The World Wide Web, coupled with her sister Geospatial Data, brings you the National Atlas, a two-dimensional gold mine of place-based information about the United States.

Yes! Geospatial data! That's up there with Lego in my nerdly pleasure hierarchy.

The National Atlas has many awesome features - printable maps of every presidential election result since 1789, dynamic maps of monthly vegetation growth in America, downloadable raw data on which the maps are based - but the coolest way to impress your friends is with the National Atlas Map Maker. Go ahead, indulge in a few hours of exploration. Each layer is a tasty little nugget of data visually describing our country's energy use, geology, economic health, or some other nifty construct. Most data are disaggregated by county, which is neat when trying to illustrate, for example, how different San Francisco is from, say, Inyo County.

Not only are the maps a fun and easy way to absorb information about your United States, they're also a handy tool in political debates. Is your racist Midwestern uncle claiming that Mexicans are taking his job? Go ahead and show him that his county is less than 3% Hispanic, then let him observe the apparent lack of correlation between Hispanic population and jobs per capita and unemployment rates! You'll be the life of the party.

Or show all your cheese-eating in-laws that colon cancer rates are highly concentrated in the upper Midwest, then illustrate that the American West enjoys lower cancer rates than everyone else. Everyone likes a know-it-all.

Or, less argumentatively, simply peruse cool information like vegetable harvesting acreage or fertility rates among women over 40 or the location and magnitude of earthquakes since the late 16th century. (California leads the pack in all three categories.)

A caveat: Raw number data in the same category might not be easily compared across time periods due to varied distribution of color codes from one map to the next. For example, in the map of "Percent of Population: White" for 2000, the bright yellow indicates a percentage range of 0.1 to 33.1; in the 1980 map of the same variable, the bright yellow represents 6.332 to 38.928 percentage points. This distribution is based on a formula I learned about in my brief ArcGIS training; I forgot the name of the formula, but it distributes ranges in a more informative way than a simple linear distribution would.

Hopefully USGS will include a map illustrating climate change over the centuries and degades once it's available. I look forward to the depressing news.

Happy mapmaking!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

It's not an endorsement; it's just cowardace

I'm both an atheist and an avid user of and advocate for the National Park Service, so I feel kinda caught in the middle of this debate. The long and short of it, though, is that NPS is being cowardly and disloyal to its mission. However, there are two distinct debates occurring simultaneously, and it's important not to conflate the two.

Debate One: Should the National Park Service permit non-scientific beliefs to influence their educational materials and official statements? Not in a million years! (Or 6,000 years, if that's your game.) If what the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility say is true, and "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature," then I'm outraged. As a governmental entity (and as an organization statedly devoted to education about the natural world), it's legally and ethically wrong for NPS to bow to religion in the face of scientific fact. Boo, National Park System!

Debate Two: Should the National Park Service allow a religious-themed publication to be sold in its bookstore? Sure, why not? As Paul pointed out, there are plenty of books sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore describing the spiritual (and geologically inaccurate) beliefs of American Indians, and permitting Christian creationist texts is no different. The bookstore and giftshop is a clearinghouse for Grand Canyon-themed items, not a library of fact and endorsements. (They also sell Grand Canyon shot glasses in the giftshop. I wouldn't interpret that as a government endorsement to drink.) It's important to note that few, if any, items sold in the bookstore are published or produced by the National Park Service; they are created by private or non-profit groups and sold on NPS property. Insisting that the Grand Canyon bookstore only sell items devoid of religious content is like demanding that public libraries not carry The Holy Bible, lest doing so be interpreted as an endorsement of Christianity. The NPS is permitting a venue in which all voices (no matter how crazy) are heard. Hooray, National Park Service!

If I were to take issue with anything NPS does, I'd complain about their pro-Manifest Destiny video presentation at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Blech.

Rebecca picks on WND column, proceeds to steal candy from baby

World Net Daily is a vast well from which I can drink continually and never feel the pang of thirst. Smart people like my Bajillion readers know that everything published at WND bears the argumentative integrity of a drunk seven-year-old speaking Latin. But what about all the doofuses who aren't smart and take WND seriously?

WND does a good job of reflecting the erroneous or specious (yet semi-coherent) arguments that plague otherwise innocuous thinkers, then take those arguments to their logical conclusions, thus revealing how painfully weak the original argument was to begin with. They use the same rhetorical techniques employed by stupid people who aren't crazy (e.g., Bill O'Reilley, Sean Hannity), then utilize those exact techniques to be crazy (like Pat Buchanan or this asshat).

Here's an example: Profiling: Because we're not God. The content of the article is crazy claptrap; most essays touting racial profiling are. The title alone should be a dead givaway. But the arguments that Walter E. Williams uses are so familiar and successful among less insane pundits and writers that they warrant analysis.

1. WND's editors have cashed in on the principle of Oppressed Subgroup Immunity, namely that if you're black or Muslim or a woman then you're automatically granted license to spout bullshittery on behalf of all blacks or Muslims or women without fear of reprimandation. "But I'm black! How could I be racist?!" Well played, World Net Daily.

2. Williams begins by stating the obvious. By leading with an inarguable assertion, he poises himself as a reasonable, truthful character.
God, or some other omniscient being, would never racially profile. Why? Since He is all-knowing, He'd know who is and is not a terrorist or a criminal. We humans are not all-knowing.
Well, I guess you got me there, Walt. Even if you don't believe in god, you have to accept the internal logic of this statement. Shit. I guess this means humans are obligated to perform all the functions the G-man isn't around to do for us. Has anyone invented a Hurricane Course Changer yet?

3. The author uses a bogus analogy that is structurally identical to the topic at hand, yet is in practice totally different from the issue being debated.
Mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases were approximately 30 percent higher among black adults than among white adults. The Pima Indians of Arizona have the world's highest known diabetes rates. Prostate cancer is nearly twice as common among black men as white men. Would anyone bring racial profiling charges against a doctor who routinely ordered more frequent blood tests and prostate screening among his black patients and more glucose tolerance tests for his Pima Indian patients?
Of course, while racially-specific medical screening saves the lives of blacks and American Indians, racial profiling at airports negatively discriminates against Middle Eastern-looking people. See? Internally logical analogy coupled with insanely stupid extension of that analogy.

4. Williams invokes legitimate facts to support an illegitimate stance.
It is clear, whether we like it or not, or want to say it or not, that there is a strong correlation between terrorist acts and being a Muslim, and being black and high rates of crime.
Since September 11, 2001, fewer than ten terrorists have attacked American soil, and they happened to all be Muslim. Okay, so 100% of terrorists to attack the US in the last six years have been Muslim. But that also means that fewer than 0.00000001% of all Muslims have attacked the US in the last six years. Somehow that's a less impressive number.

Also, I'm pretty sure that most terrorist acts on US territory in the 1990s were by white American Christian dudes. For some reason we didn't racially profile white guys after the Oklahoma City bombing. Clearly, there's another variable (hint: racism) at play.

5. Finally, Walter pulls the "blame the victims, not the victimizers" rabbit out of his magic top hat of crazy.
A law-abiding Muslim who's given extra airport screening or a black who's stopped by the police is perfectly justified in being angry, but with whom should he be angry? I think a Muslim should be angry with those who've made terrorism and Muslim synonymous and blacks angry with those who've made blacks and crime synonymous.
Yes, and don't blame rapists ... blame the rape victims for dressing like sluts! Or, better yet, blame every self-empowered woman who's expressed interest in sex at any point in her life. So any woman who doesn't want to be sexually assaulted should air her grievances with all the feminist women who like dick. (Note how I used an analogy that actually makes sense. Sheesh.)

Racism should not be the burdon the oppressed. There's no such thing as a legitimate stereotype. And racism is always wrong, no matter what color the racist's skin is.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Apples to Apples

I'm on vacation, so I have time to read stuff like this:
While I think Edwards should be taken more seriously than JPod does — if only because so many Democrats and pundits take him seriously — let's not forget that Edwards didn't help Kerry in the South at all. If memory serves, Edwards didn't even boost Kerry's percentage in Edwards' home state of North Carolina by even a single percentage point over Gore's in 2000. We were told when Kerry picked Edwards that the move would put all of the South in play. That was obvious nonsense. But, if he's the guy who can win in the South, shouldn't he have helped the ticket in his own state just an eensy-weensy bit?
Well, OK, but Al Gore was a southerner himself. If Edwards didn't shift many southern states toward the Democrats relative to 2000, that probably had something to do with the fact that his ticket was more-or-less the inverse of Gore's, which featured a southerner at the top and relegated the scary New England character to the bottom.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Volokh and States, Sitting in a Tree...

There's a (one-sided) debate going on over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether or not federalism is "tainted" in virtue of its history with Jim Crow, slavery, and racism generally. Much conservative hand-wringing ensues, and much cognitive dissonance is introduced. Ilya Somin, at one point, draws a tortured distinction between "federalism" and "states' rights" by claiming that the former "requires citizen mobility between states, so that people can 'vote with their feet' against jurisdictions that adopt harmful or oppressive policies toward them."

Uh, since when? I mean, I appreciate that it's more than a little bit awkward to be a decent proponent of federalism in a world in which defending the autonomy of individual states has been used as a pretext for implementing brutal, disgusting, racist policies. What aren't cool are the intellectual convolutions the rest of us have to listen to to hear why all federalists shouldn't be painted with the same brush. It's confusing and it's complicated, and it's all entirely unnecessary.

All you've really got to do to wash your hands of federalism's history, in my view, is to admit that federalism isn't a fundamental ethical principle. States aren't morally relevant entities, so we've got no basic ethical reason to start giving them rights. Federalism is ultimately just a useful rule of thumb for implementing policy effectively and justly arranging institutions. The difference isn't hard to see, but a lot of conservatives are emotionally wedded to their federalism, so there's a lot of reluctance to recognize it. Among other things, acknowledging that distinction would mean that modern-day federalists would have to start defending their stances in terms of actual costs and benefits rather than lazy appeals to abstract principle, but that's just so much the worse for modern-day federalists.

Certainly, that would take some of the wind out of federalism's sails, but that's the price you pay for having elevated the whole philosophy so high in the first place.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Matthew Yglesias points out an argument from Ann Althouse that's as pathetic as it is absurd. Overlooked, though, are the deeper absurdities of the statistic first brought up by Orin Kerr: "Today the war in Iraq passed a very sad milestone: the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has now exceeded the number of persons killed in the 9/11 attacks."

The appropriate response to this is to point out that it is of no consequence whatever. Or, "Uh, who cares?"

2,973 isn't a magic number, or the minimum number of people you have to kill to have done something wrong or regrettable. It's just the number of people who happened to have died in the attacks of September 11, 2001. One (1) dead person is a large moral problem; 2,973 of them is not a different sort of problem. What we're dealing with is a numerical coincidence, not a normative threshold of any significance.

P.S. - I'd sort of hoped that Althouse would explain in the comments to her post what she meant when she described invading Iraq as "fighting back". No such luck.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Let's bag on The American Prospect too

TAP runs David Greenberg's review of "The Race Beat":
On February 6, 1956, Peter Kihss of The New York Times was covering the enrollment of the first black student, Autherine Lucy, at the University of Alabama. Mobs of racist thugs swarmed the campus, harassing her whenever she left a classroom, and late that day they encircled an older black man who had come to drive Lucy home. Impulsively, Kihss moved to protect the driver, and when the crowd closed in, he abandoned journalistic protocol entirely. "I'm a reporter for The New York Times, and I've gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama," he threatened. "Now I'll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time." The mob spared him, while Lucy scooted out the building's back door into a patrol car.

As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff show in their bracing new history, The Race Beat, the stakes of the civil-rights movement forced many reporters who covered it to choose sides. They found themselves faced with impossible professional, political, and moral dilemmas, with human decency often pitted against journalistic norms. In the process, they challenged professional conventions, aided the cause of equal rights, and, in their own way, made history.
So far so good. But Greenberg tacks his own moral at the end of his piece:
If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism's finest hours, it carried a cost. It's a shame that Roberts and Klibanoff don't explicitly state the conclusion that much of their evidence suggests: Today's right-wing bogeyman of "the liberal media" originated in this struggle. Coverage of the movement convinced much of the white South that the networks, papers like the Times, and magazines like Time and Newsweek were hostile and biased interlopers that told only one side of the story.


Thus, while Roberts and Klibanoff are right to celebrate these journalists for bravely documenting the cruelty of Jim Crow and helping to hasten its demise, their legacy is more ambiguous. For in choosing to support right over wrong, good over evil, they fueled a distrust and resentment of what we now call "the mainstream media" that has, over the years, only grown in virulence.
To me it seems an unmitigated good that Kihss stood down the Alabama mob and told them to follow the law. To me broadcasting visceral images of civil-rights protesters getting attacked is just good journalism. To me reporting on It doesn't look like "ambiguous" at all. Greenberg instead believes that these actions traded away some credibility which eventually gave rise to the anti-media resentment that we see today.

Greenberg's assumption here is that reporters could have maintained their credibility in the eyes of the South had the reporters simply refrained from things like "deliver[ing] the raw images of brutality and injustice into American living rooms, destroying any last support for Jim Crow outside the South.". But we have very little reason to believe this. After all, when authorities set dogs on protesters, that's news. You can't not report it. If you want to know what it would have taken to satisfy conservative Southerners look no farther that Greenberg's own review:
In one fascinating section, they relate a conspiracy hatched among white Southern editors who belonged to the Associated Press to try to force the wire service to write about crimes by blacks in the North as avidly as it spotlighted the violence of the white South.
The problem wasn't that reporters were broadcasting bias. The problem was that they were accurately discerning what was relevant - the civil-rights movement - from what was not newsworthy. Essentially, conservative Southerners didn't want the truth reported because the truth was that the southern system was corrupt and immoral. Objectively. So the "trade-off" Greensburg wants to artlessly tack on to to the end of the book rings hollow.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The most contrarian position is the one which is clearly wrong

Shorter Peter Beinart:

The "reality based" liberals who oppose the war are the real neocons.

It would be ten times funnier if the joint advocacy of the Iraq war by Peter Beinart's TNR and the neocons didn't lead to thousands of American and Iraqi deaths.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sloppy Metaphysics

Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Sure, but so what? We're not 50 years away from conscious robots. We might be 50 years away from robots that seem to all outward appearances to be conscious, but that's not the same thing.

It's not even that consciousness couldn't be artificially created. If, for instance, consciousness is just an emergent property of brains set up and functioning like our own, then there's no reason, in principle, that we couldn't replicate the necessary conditions to give rise to consciousness artificially. That's not the way robots or artificial intelligence work, though. And why should they? It seems pointlessly complicated to try to create a robot that functions mechanically the way we do, since all we're really after in a robot is the functionality of responding in the desired way to stimuli we provide.

In fact, the prospect of artificially inducing consciousness seems like an awfully good incentive not to take the consciousness-inducing strategy with a robot, since then you get into precisely those sorts of thorny ethical issues.

TNR Run down

I might grow old and die before finishing this review of TNR, so I'll be quicker about it:

Divide Iraq, Peter W. Galbraith

Wrong. The regions of Iraq are not heterogeneous. Dividing Iraq would take one state where minorities aren’t safe and turn them into a bunch of countries where different minorities aren’t safe. See this for more. Much of Galbraith’s arguments are refuted in the next article:

Keep It Whole, Reza Aslan

Right on. The best point he makes is that oil is not evenly distributed in Iraq. Any division of Iraq would necessarily founder on that issue.

Force Everyone To The Table, Anne-Marie Slaughter

She says “throw a big peace conference and if it doesn’t work go home”. Fine. I don’t think a conference would work but I’m happy to try one if that’s what it takes to get some people to support withdrawal. I should point out that not talking to countries like Syria and Iran are part of official Bush doctrine and he shows no sign of changing that.

Deal With The Sunnis, Larry Diamond

He wants to cut a deal with the Sunni insurgents to get them on our side. He says “ensure that the central government will control the oil and not the Shia regions that have the oil”. Of course the problem is “we” can’t cut any kind of deal. The US doesn’t own the oil-fields in Iraq. The Iraqi government does. And it’s run by Maliki and his Sadr’s chums. So the question is how do we get Maliki to hand over the oil? I don’t know. And how do we get Sadr’s voting block in parliament to go along with it? I don’t know that either. And why should the Sunnis be happy knowing that the central government will control the oil when they know they will always be outnumbered by the Shia there? Mr. Diamond doesn’t know either or else he’s not very good at writing essays.

To be continued…

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Can Give You Facts and Figures, I Could Give You Plans and Forecasts

If you want to see me angry, remind me about the Bush administration's insistence that sex education funds be given exclusively to abstinence-only programs. This isn't because I think teenagers shouldn't be abstinent (it didn't hurt me none). It's not even that I think abstinence-only education is the underhanded tool of fundamental Christians trying to shoehorn religious teachings into public education (though it totally is).

No, the reason I get so steamed about abstinence-only sex ed is because it doesn't even work! More comprehensive sex ed programs, such as those touting abstinence and condoms, are more successful at preventing teen pregnancy, STDs, and sexual activity. So, based on the research, if fundies really wanted to curb the clap and unwanted babies (and, by extension, abortions), they'd promote comprehensive sex ed over the laughable "not 'til you're married" policy.

Beware--I invoked the holy name of Research when debating an emotionally-charged topic. For some reason research isn't a popular tool in policy making; in some contexts, it's practically a dirty word. There's something about a nerd with a pie chart telling you that your 12-year-old daughter should watch her teacher roll a condom over a banana that, well, rubs parents the wrong way. Who the hell do you think you are, with your fancy applied statistics degree and flashy bar graphs. Do you even have a daughter of your own?

Sure, we pretend to advocate the use of research in civic decision-making. Representatives like to walk onto Capitol Hill with a stack of charts and data under their arm. Constituencies like the authenticity that research affords their lawmakers. When a bearded Berkeley professor goes on the local news to act as an expert about the connection between carbon emissions and climate change, audiences hold that researcher in a certain regard. For a moment.

When it comes down to it, though, beliefs will always trump facts.

There are plenty of reasons for this. The first and most subtle is that Americans don't like know-it-alls. Data are exotic and mysterious, and come to think of it most of us have always hated math. Sarah Vowell writes about this phenomenon when assessing why voters undervalued Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore embodies what the populace hates about research-oriented thinkers: he uses big words, cites numbers and trends and published reports, and then acts like he knows more than I do because, most likely, he knows more than I do. He's a big nerd, and he makes us feel dumb. Researchers, experts, and Al Gore spend their whole careers rubbing it our face that they know better than we do how we should spend our lives. The audacity!

That brings me to the next reason Americans dismiss poindexters and their highfalutin' data: we don't like people telling us what to do. A lot of research out there is exploratory--it seeks to discover unknown facts. It's when research gets prescriptive, however, that we get ornery. And when research hops in bed with policy, the most prescriptive element of our society, it feels like mom and dad are making us eat our veggies.

Along those lines, the most obvious reason we poo-poo research in policy is that we're confident that we know how to take care of ourselves, no matter what the bespectacled number-crunchers say. It's the same mentality that prompts some of us to never wear our seat belts; seat belts are for bad drivers, not me. Or sometimes the research results in question counter everything we've experienced in our lives. How can pork be bad for you if my granny ate a rack of ribs every day until the day she died at the age of 98? Or the research results might simply be counter-intuitive. You mean red light cameras actually increase car accidents? No way! Very simply, research can prescribe behaviors that completely violate preexisting beliefs, morals, or folk knowledge, and it's going to take more than a few papers published in Harvard Educational Review to change our minds about how schools should be run. If my parents always told me that milk builds strong bones, I'm not going to value research that says it doesn't. If I think pre-teens shouldn't be exposed to condoms, I don't care if the Mighty World of Research says they should. If I think God created the Earth in six days, fossil records mean nothing to me.

There is one last, and semi-logical, reason to question the role of research in your daily life. Frankly, research results are confusing, conflicting, and ever-changing. Is milk bad for me or good for me? What about beef? Vitamins? Some research says yes, and some says no! From a layperson's perspective, the Research Community can't make up its mind. "Research" is viewed as an amorphous lump of scientists in lab coats, a unified coalition of smarty-pants who convene every year to agree on the Truth. So it's a little confusing when one member of the research community says milk makes you fat while another equally believable source says it'll help you lose weight. To decipher all the conflicting information would require a degree of research methods and statistics literacy that very few people actually have.

The truth is that most the research that gets published and makes headlines is internally valid, and usually fairly externally valid. The source of confusion is in how these data are presented to the public: the USA Today headline says something earth-shattering like "Watching TV Makes your Kids Stupid," when in reality the research study simply correlated television viewing with lower grades. How is Joanne Meatball supposed to detect the nuanced differences between those two statements? If you carefully examine every study that makes the front page, you'll find that most of them are sound, and most of the studies that reveal ostensibly opposed truths are actually measuring completely different constructs. But if I can't understand what the data imply, why should I trust it?

The question is whether these are actually good reasons to discourage the marriage of research and law.

The advantages of research-based policy are clear. We would expect to see laws actually yield their intended results at a greater rate than currently enjoyed, assuming the policies are enforced properly. Fewer pregnant teenagers, fewer women with osteoporosis, fewer inmates on death row, fewer gun deaths, fewer accidents at lit intersections. It's a utopia waiting to happen.

The disadvantages are not easily overlooked, though. What if the policy that research prescribes violates the sanctity of civil liberties? So what if tracking sex offenders with GPS devices is effective at reducing repeat crimes? It's also invasive and cruel. (Come to think of it, though, I doubt if it'll prove effective.) Relying heavily on research to inform policy is precariously undemocratic. When lawmaking is put in the hands of unelected experts, the public's right to enforce their beliefs, however unfounded, is limited. For better or worse, it's my right as an American to demand that morals, not science, dictate policy. And given how inscrutable most research is, who would mediate between the academic world and the policy-making world? Would their motives be free of bias? Finally, as new data are collected, the "facts" can change with generations. Can we afford to bend law around a seemingly fickle collection of truths?

Despite these drawbacks, research should play a more prominent role in lawmaking. I think resistance to fact-based policy is rooted primarily in unfounded skepticism and ignorance, and perhaps a little in hardheadedness. Americans display a distrust of science not observed in comparable nations, and while it hasn't been stifling our short-term economic health, our environmental and personal health is suffering as a result.

Plus my income for the last three years has relied on publicly funded education research, so maybe I'm just looking out for Numero Uno.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sloppy Metaethics

Ilya Somin admirably refuses to concede ground to Jeff Jacoby on the relationship between atheism and moral relativism*, but fails to call B.S. on the argument that:
What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in G-d is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without G-d, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong,but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: "Thou shalt not murder...."
If the reason you don't kill somebody is that you're scared of what God will do to you, you're not acknowledging an objective moral truth, you're just being bullied around. The real question is whether God is enforcing a preexisting normative law, or whether He's making arbitrary demands of the people unfortunate enough to be answerable to Him. In neither case does God do any actual metaethical work.

*I think the real disagreement is about moral skepticism, but who's counting?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Butt it's art!

The Education Wonks are showing their prudish side:
TipWonk KauiMark has pointed us to the incredible story of Virginia art teacher Stephen Murmer. It seems as though Mr. Murmer has been suspended from his classroom because of his peculiar habit of painting pictures with his backside and/or his genitals. (We didn't make this up---- honest!) Of course it goes without saying that the American Civil Liberties Union couldn't wait to get itself involved.
Reading that, you'd think Murmer was dropping his drawers in the classroom. (Crazy ACLU!) But as they say, always follow the link:
To hear the students tell it, Stephen Murmer is a fun, popular art teacher who is always quick to crack a joke. But there is another side to Murmer...Outside of class and under an alter ego, the self-proclaimed "butt-printing artist" creates floral and abstract art by plastering his posterior and genitals with paint and pressing them against canvas. His cheeky creations sell for hundreds of dollars.

This has not gone over well with Chesterfield County school officials, who placed Murmer on administrative leave from his job at Monacan High School.


Murmer went to great lengths to keep his work life separate from his activities as an artist, said ACLU executive director Kent Willis. As a butt-printing artist, he goes by the name "Stan Murmur," and appears in disguise in photographs and videos promoting his art.

"As a public employee, he has constitutional rights, and he certainly has the right to engage in private legal activities protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution," Willis said.
The students seem to agree. As do I. The school district wants to say that Murmer is "expected to set an example for students through their personal conduct" and "that teachers, like parents, are role models." All of which is correct, and none of which provides a reason to kick Murmer out of the classroom. Unless Virginia has some law against painting with your butt that I don't know about, it's not obvious what's supposed to be the poor example being set. Are we expected to worry that a cohort of kids will grow up to be butt painters?

I don't understand old people.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TNR Review: On Robert Kagan

Next up in my review of TNR is the article by NeoCon Robert Kagan. He wants to send more troops to Iraq.
The first priority ought to be to secure Baghdad, which U.S. policy has disastrously failed to do. To accomplish this, the United States should send an additional 50,000 troops at least, the bulk of them to Baghdad so that the city can be made safe for its inhabitants, but without drawing forces from elsewhere in the country. Once Baghdad is secure, U.S. and Iraqi forces could extend their operations into Sunni-controlled areas. This will take time. But a secure Baghdad would provide at least one pillar on which any eventual political settlement could be based.

Some claim that we don’t have 50,000 troops to send to Iraq. In fact, the troops are available. Sending additional forces to Iraq means lengthening troop rotations, as the United States has done in previous major conflicts. Sustaining such an increased deployment, however, will require a substantial increase in the overall size of the Army and Marines. This increase, which does not require a draft but does require money, is necessary regardless of what we do in Iraq. It is stunning that this administration has attempted to fight two wars and has envisioned other possible interventions with a force clearly inadequate.
I want to keep my TNR bashing to minimum but I should point out that not only does this sound like it was cribbed from The Weekly Standard – it actually was. But lets deal with the substance instead of guilt by association. Do we actually have 50,000 extra troops to send to Iraq? Well the Pentagon says no:
The US army is being stretched, by its deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, into a "thin green line" in danger of breaking before the insurgents are defeated, claims a report commissioned by the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a former army officer who wrote the report, said that the army could not sustain the current pace of deployments - which was likely in the end to discourage recruitment.
So, at best we could surge forces for a little while. Ok fine. Kagan's whole point is that no political solution can arise until there is security so we should focus on that first. The problem is that - like the underpants gnomes - Kagan is pretty shady on what exactly the political solution is or how it will be reached.

The truth is that we have vast militias in Iraq that are politically invulnerable because the people who run them are in the Iraqi government. Those militias are fighting each other because each honestly thinks they can prevail at least within their sphere of influence. Kagan's plan only makes sense if you already believe that a positive resolution to the Iraq conflict is possible. If, like me, you disagree, Kagan's plan just looks like a way of getting a whole lot more American soldiers killed.

Update: Spencer Ackerman (formerly of TNR) responds to Kagan's lunacy in more depth.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wait, THAT'S the REAL reason he hasn't proposed yet

Ladies, it's not that your marriage-phobic boyfriend is boycotting the institution until same-sex couples can also enjoy the rights of matrimony. Nope, it's that all the tofu he sucks down is making him question opposite-sex couples to begin with. Soy makes you gay, apparently.

Don't believe me? Just ask this guy.
Soy is nutritious and contains lots of good things. Unfortunately, when you eat or drink a lot of soy stuff, you're also getting substantial quantities of estrogens.

Estrogens are female hormones. If you're a woman, you're flooding your system with a substance it can't handle in surplus. If you're a man, you're suppressing your masculinity and stimulating your "female side," physically and mentally.

In fetal development, the default is being female. All humans (even in old age) tend toward femininity. The main thing that keeps men from diverging into the female pattern is testosterone, and testosterone is suppressed by an excess of estrogen.

See, he's using almost real science (soy contains phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen; estrogen is the primary female sex hormone) and applying it to theoretically and empirically unfounded statements (soy makes you feminine). Clever. This is a dismissable (dare I say bat shit crazy) application of the real-science-plus-fake-conclusions tactic that's especially popular among people who foster anti-scientific thinking.

But there are many who employ the methods of scientists and researchers, then twist these methods beyond recognition into a mangled clump of speculation, superstition, and prejudice, but still have their ideas taken seriously! Take the Intelligent Design team or anti-feminists, for example.

All this talk about soy-based estrogens got met thinking, though. Given that about two-thirds of soybeans grown in America are fed to livestock, and given that a cow's diet is as much soybean as anything else, maybe beef is to blame for the gay epidemic. I feel so sorry for those millions of beef steers who have to spend their entire two years on the planet questioning their own bovine sexuality.

By the way, could there be a more hilarious headline than "A devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals"? That wins.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I Still No Hablo EspaƱol

A while back I suggested that most of the time students spend studying foreign languages in school is essentially wasted. Kevin Carey seems to agree:
Now, I'm not against global literacy, being sensitive to foreign cultures, etc. I think they're important. But I'm not sure that means it's a problem that only half of high school students are taking a foreign language. I base this on what is admittedly the worst of all sample sizes of one: myself. I took French for six years, starting in the seventh grade and going all the way through high school. In retrospect, it was pretty much a waste of time. I've long since forgotten most of it, and what I remember has been useful only when travelling in French-speaking countries, of which they aren't very many.


All else being equal, students are undoubtedly better off knowing multiple languages than just one. But there are lots of things they're better off knowing than not knowing, the question is which of those things are most important. If foreign languages go onto that list, something else has to come off. It's not clear to me what that should be.

My only real objection is to this bit at the end:

The only exception I could see is Spanish, which is spoken by a large and growing number of Americans. If students were required to take a least a few years of Spanish, they'd have a stronger connection to many of their fellow citizens, as well as most of the rest of the Western hemisphere.
This argument, like so many others in favor of foreign language education, ends up resting on an appeal to cultural sensitivity or affinity, which is not the same thing as language proficiency. And if cultural awareness is so important, what really needs to happen is better desegregation of schools. If we're willing to settle in the short term, we could look into classes dedicated to cultural awareness. In any event, pretending we're teaching a significant number of kids to speak Spanish really doesn't get us anywhere.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cheat Sheet for Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D)

Since it seems to be difficult to keep track of, here's a list for everybody to use:

Saudi Arabia
Al Queda
Osama Bin Laden
Most of the Palestinians
Most of Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia
The Kurds
Shiite (AKA Shia, Shi'ite)
Most of Iraq
Most of the Muslims in Lebanon

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TNR review: the continuation

Richard Clarke and David Rieff bother have article in this issue that call for withdrawal. Here’s Clarke:
We can pursue our core interests in Iraq--ensuring that the country does not become a terrorist base and that it does not destabilize the rest of the region--without a large occupying force. To do this, we should announce our intention to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq beginning in December and concluding with the withdrawal of all major ground combat units within 18 months; declare that the United States seeks no permanent military bases in Iraq; gain permission from Kuwait to station additional combat units there to create an "over the horizon" capability to deal with terrorists in Iraq; accelerate the training and equipping of the Iraqi army with embedded Special Forces; work with our regional allies to create an enhanced covert action capacity to combat Iraq-based terrorism; speed up U.S. reconstruction efforts; and convene a regional process to guarantee the stability of Iraq, inviting Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf countries to join.
It’s telling that they had to hire an outsider to pen this reasonable piece. Though it’s not an opinion often expressed in TNR supporting troop withdrawals doesn’t mean supporting isolation.
This “support the war or support pulling out in half and hour” paradigm seems to be so strong at TNR that when David Rieff - a regular contributor – penned his piece he couldn’t help but fulfill some of the worst instincts of the anti-war forces:
At the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, while his policemen were beating up the demonstrators along the Loop and in Lincoln Park, Mayor Richard Daley apparently told Lyndon Johnson that it was time to pull the troops out of Vietnam, once and for all. "How am I to do this?" Johnson asked pleadingly. To which Daley is said to have replied: "You put the fucking troops on the fucking planes and you get them out of there!"

Apart from protecting the Kurds, whose possible acquisition of statehood may be the only good news of this whole dreadful adventure--America's Sicilian Expedition, I fear--there is no longer anything we can do. And the Kurds can probably look after themselves anyway. It is time to put the fucking troops on the fucking planes. Now! Before any more of our children die for their country's hubris.
Now it could be that Rieff is just being hyperbolic here. He could just mean “get them out quickly in the safest way possible”. As far as I know doing that would take somewhere around a year to – as Clarke said – 18 months. Still I can’t help but take him seriously when he makes the unserious suggestion of just putting the soldiers onto planes as fast a possible. Not only would this be logistically difficult for our troops but it wouldn't give Iraqis any chance to prepare for the sea change it would bring. It seems that TNR offers an equal opportunity to read both unserious pro-war arguments and unserious anti-war ones.

Tom’s rating: 10/10 and 6/10

Probability of being instituted: 5/10 and 5/10

Pony plan rating: N/A and N/A

Update: Spencer Ackerman, formerly of TNR explains that being for withdrawal is not good for your career at TNR.
How many times, guys? How many times did you intimate to me that I was in league with the terrorists when I told you to get out of Iraq? Hey, Leon, do you remember the editorial meeting after the Blackwater lynching in late March 2004? That was the first time I said I thought the war was unwinnable, and that was the first time you told me ("joking," of course) that I was fired. Yeah, it was funny the first time, I guess, but after the next hundred, the joke gets kind of old.
Spencer Ackerman was a writer at TNR whom the editors once thought so well-versed in Iraq that they let him write a blog dedicated to it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

So THAT'S why he hasn't proposed yet!

And here you thought your partner just had cold feet. From the depths of the Meaningless Protest/Shittiest Excuse Ever archives comes this little gem: "The Sit-In at the Altar: No 'I Do' Till Gays Can Do It, Too." A few hetero couples have decided not to tie the knot until this country evolves from its homophobic, bass-ackwards funk and gives gay couples the same matrimonial rights as straights.

How on earth could someone refuse to marry simply because their government doesn't recognize same-sex marriages? That'd be like deciding not to eat all of your mashed potatoes simply because there are starving children in Africa. Isn't that the opposite of what your parents taught you? Speaking of analogies ...
“I usually explain that I wouldn’t go to a lunch counter that wouldn’t allow people of color to eat there, so why would I support an institution that won’t allow everyone to take part,” said Ms. White, 24, a law student at the University of California, Davis. “Sometimes people don’t buy that analogy.”
Count me among those who think that analogy is, for lack of a better phrase, completely moronic. A better analogy, using Ms. White's ingredients, would be if you refused to eat sandwiches because sandwiches are served at lunch counters, and people of color aren't allowed to eat at some lunch counters. Don't throw out the sandwich with the lunch counter. There's nothing intrinsicly heterosexist (or misogynistic) about state-recognized partnerships; right now the government's application of marriage is unfair and bigoted, but that's an error of the government, not of the institution of marriage. Certainly marriage has some unsavory historical roots, but so does the United States interstate highway system. Don't tell me you boycott the 580 because it was Hitler's idea.

Some protesters seem to oppose hetersexual marriage in part because of the cultural connotations associated with traditional weddings.
“I didn’t have the wedding fantasies some little girls have,” said Sarah Augusto...
This implies that the kind of women (or men) who want to get married and have a wedding are buying in to an antiquated, anit-feminist fantasy that's inculcated into children by heterosexist culture. Where is it written that a wedding has to be look like a page torn from a story book? Why do you even have to have a wedding, per se, in order to be married? I'm pretty sure all you need is a form, an application fee, and a few witnesses. Don't piggyback your revulsion toward traditional weddings onto a legitimate concern about equal rights.

Very obnoxiously, one woman they interviewed seemed quite turned on by the idea of shaking things up for the sake of shaking things up.
Referring to each other as “partner” usually helps avoid the misperception, but that can be tricky, too. When Ms. Augusto, the sociology graduate student, speaks of her partner, people ask if she’s a lesbian. “I say, ‘My partner is male,’” she said. “‘We’re not getting married because it’s not a universal right, and I feel that the word boyfriend trivializes our relationship.’ It’s really shocking to the people I tell that to. Probably as shocking as if I were a lesbian.”
Probably as shocking as if I were a lesbian?! That assumes that (a) being a lesbian is shocking, (b) not getting married is shocking, and (c) anyone cares enough about your life to be shocked by it. Family members, maybe, wacky conservative Christians, sure; but Joanne Schmo on the street doesn't give a damn about your baseless protest. Mostly it seems like these people are trying to be co-martyrs; maybe they feel guilty that they were born straight and thus can't "suffer" as gays and lesbians do, so they're adopting useless burdon to compensate. Or maybe they just want attention.

Oh yeah, this argument was supposed to be about gay rights, not about some straight couples' attempts to look for a reason to avoid marriage, remember? The New York Times actually got a hold of some gay rights groups' leaders, and, according to the article, many such groups aren't advocating the anti-marriage platform.
Molly McKay, a founder of Marriage Equality U.S.A. in Oakland, said its goal is to increase the number of people who have the protections that come with marriage. “We love weddings,” Ms. McKay said.
You mean people who advocate for the expansion of marriage aren't suggesting that fewer people get married? Crazy.