moldybluecheesecurds 2

Thursday, September 29, 2005

In my 10 minutes of sanity

I'm using the brief, 10 sanity-break to give you a message from the trenches: don't ever assume that graduate school means you get good teachers. In fact, I discover that the proportion of poor, mediocre, and good teachers seems fairly constant at whatever level of education. I suppose one can be grateful that at this level, I can go rate my professors or find out who can't teach before I sign up. It's sad to see that providing a public service like a ratings site - potentially saving hundreds of students from needing a blog entry to restore their sanity - is considered defamation. All I can say is, if you don't want people to think you suck, maybe you should teach well.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I'm am one with nerddom

According to my recently completed Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator test, I am an Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiver. This puts me in good company with some famous nerds (Einstein and Asimov) as well as with Nietzche, perhaps signifying my unending "will to power."

Colloquially, this means I am a big picture guy, sometimes overly committed to factual evidence at the expense of individual feelings. It also means I perceive my life as some sort of "great work" or crusade (only on Saturday mornings). However, Wikipedia has a much more verbose discussion of my personality type, based on the psychologist Jung, which I find intriguing:

[Introverted Intuition folks] are enigmatic, 'unearthly' people who stand aloof from ordinary society. They have little interest in explaining or rationalizing their personal vision, but are content merely to proclaim it. Partly as a result of this, they are often misunderstood. Although the vision of the artist among this type generally remains on the purely perceptual level, mystical dreamers or cranks may become caught up in theirs. The person's life then becomes symbolic, taking on the nature of a Great Work, mission or spiritual-moral quest.

[Introverted Thinkers] usually avoid notice and may seem cold, arrogant and taciturn. Alternatively, the repressed feeling function may express itself in displays of childish naivety. Generally people of this type appear caught up in their own ideas which they aim to think through as fully and deeply as possible. If extreme or neurotic they can become rigid, withdrawn, surly or brusque. They may also confuse their subjectively apprehended truth with their own personality so that any criticism of their ideas is seen as a personal attack. This may lead to bitterness or to vicious counterattacks against their critics.

Hmm, I can't say Jung has really hit the mark. Maybe you should check with my friends.

Friday, September 23, 2005

It won't be us on the porch

There's a term in economics called full-cost accounting. It's basically academic-speak for the idea that when you buy something, you should pay not only the sticker price, but also for environmental damage in shipping or manufacture, the cost of disposal or recycling, etc. Since it's kind of a geeky economics term, it was fascinating to see an entire editorial this week devoted to the idea that people who live near water should perhaps be prepared to pay the full price.

It'd be pretty hard not to feel bad for the sufferers from Hurricane Katrina, especially as they're about to receive a double-dose with Hurricane Rita. Obviously, every measure should be taken to ensure their safety, reunite them with their loved ones, and help them rebuild their lives. But maybe not exactly as they were.

See, the federal government, via your pocketbook and mine, subsidizes these folks in New Orleans and elsewhere that like living near water. That's because flood insurance is socialized. Private insurers offer it - but it's administered and subsidized by the federal government. So instead of preparing for floods by paying realistic premiums or living away from flood-prone areas, we wait for perfectly predictable disaster to strike. Then, with mind-numbing monotony, we collectively foot the bill for people living below sea-level or in a floodplain to rebuild in exactly the same place. Again and again and again.

Here's an idea - let's make flood insurance a private cost. Let the folks who like beachfront housing be aware that they have to pay for their house when the pretty ocean decides to spawn a hellish hurricane. We could keep rebuilding on the coasts and in the floodplains, but that just encourages people to live there. So let's try something new. Let's allow Trent Lott to pay for his own coastal home - since neither you nor I will be sitting on the porch any time soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Politics and pop culture all in one!

Think you know everything about politics and pop culture? Challenge this webpage, which says it can guess the dictator or the sitcom character! It took me three tries to stump it.

Ferrets do music?

Across the way, my friend Ferret has a minor piece on musical humor you might enjoy. That is, if you are a musical geek.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Brilliant, Norm

With Hurricane Katrina gone three weeks now, the political debate of how to pay for the cleanup is heating up. Projections show the cost could exceed $200 billion, nearly doubling the federal deficit in the course of a single natural disaster. The Bush Administration has basically said that it's all going on the credit card. I think Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht (MN) put it well, "It is not my definition of compassion to simply write checks from the federal government and expect our children and grandchildren to pay for it."

Democrats in Congress, sadly, are once again waiting to be the naysayers instead of stepping up with a tax plan. Yes, you can't raise $200 billion without taxes (unless you want to try fees a la MN Governor Tim Pawlenty).

As dumb as the collective Democratic Party is in Washington, at least they still have Norm Coleman to make them look good. His contribution to the Katrina discussion? "What is needed now is strong leadership." He expressed disappointment that Bush has not created "a key leadership position to coordinate, oversee, and implement" the recovery effort. Bush did have someone in a leadership position. His name was Michael Brown and he was more qualified to herd Arabian horses than manage natural disasters, in keeping with Bush's tradition of picking people who are loyal instead of competent. Sound familiar, Norm?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance" part 3

I think you make a good point about Roberts - that just because the partisan atmosphere is so polarized and that he's nominated by one of the most hidebound administrations in history shouldn't automatically sink his appointment.

The media would never assist you in coming to that conclusion, though, since they like to cover things like Senator Biden's characterization of the hearing: "a Kabuki dance." That was public radio, which managed to convince me that Roberts is being made to jump through a lot of hoops without a whole lot of substance.

However, while I do agree that he shouldn't have to say what his personal views are on abortion, removing life support, or other issues that frankly will come before the Court, it doesn't mean he doesn't have to share anything.

I've been told that in addition to sidestepping (rightfully so) some of the personal questions, Judge Roberts also refuses to discuss why he arrived at certain decisions in previous cases. I don't see why discussing that should be a problem for him. As he has stated, he intends to decide cases "in light of the court's precedents, with an open mind. I will not take to the court whatever personal views I have on the issues...[my perspectives] will be based on my understanding of the law."

It may be that a politician has no real concept of what "understanding of the law" is about and hence, they fall back on perspectives on current political issues. But I sense that Roberts just doesn't want anyone to find out he may be of the same school as Clarence Thomas, who doesn't believe in stare decisis (that courts should follow precedent).

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance" part 2

Next, Mile High friend weighed in on Roberts' failure to recuse himself from a recent case involving the US government:

While I agree with your points in principle, I honestly can't trust any appointee from this administration. I don't know what their intentions truly are, but I feel that it may be some backhanded attempt to remove another check from our gov't. The fact that the administration won't even release some of his writings from his work with Reagan (that's troubling enough for me) says to me that he's a Bush insider. Overall, he has a very thin record on the bench. Therefore, his writings and statements, when he worked for the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration, become very important.

From the LA Times: JUST FOUR DAYS before the Bush administration named John G. Roberts Jr. to fill retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court, the District of Columbia federal appeals court decided a case called Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld. In a crucial victory for the administration, the court upheld President Bush's creation of special military tribunals for trials of alleged terrorists and denied them the protection of the Geneva Convention. Roberts was one of the judges who decided that case, but he should have recused himself.

While the case was pending in his court, Roberts was interviewing with high White House officials - including Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove - for a seat on the Supreme Court. In the words of the federal law on judicial disqualification, this placed the judge in a situation where "his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

If he didn't recuse himself in a case where he is in meetings with the defendant concurrently, he can't be trusted. I don't dispute the fact that he has a great legal mind since I saw his carefully worded and legalese responses to the questioning, but I think he's worth opposing, if only to send a message that we want openness and truth throughout the gov't.

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance"

On a mailing list I administer, we're having a nice little roundtable on John Roberts, so I thought I'd share our collective wisdom for your edification (in chronological order):

First up, law school friend shared his letter to our US Senator:
In a few short days you will be asked to vote on the confirmation of Judge John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the United States. As a constituent, however small and insignificant that may be, I would like to express my desire that you vote to confirm him.

Although I have generally stood for liberalism, the Democratic Party and generally against the seemingly endless displays of selfishness and insensitivity of the Bush administration, I am confident that John Roberts is a great candidate for any seat on the Supreme Court. If there is any doubt about how he will do his job after the confirmation hearings (in which he is doing an excellent job), history gives us little to fear.

Since the beginning of this country, Presidents have tried to stack the Court with nominees who they believe will espouse the views of their parties and themselves, but almost universally to their chagrin. Instead, due to the unwavering commitment to the Rule of Law by the Justices, it has been almost impossible to determine how any given individual will rule on a number of issues. Even the Court's most conservative Justice, Antonin Scalia, rules on cases according to their legal merit and not due to his own personal and religious beliefs. He has spoken and written extensively on this issue.

Both history and the present lead me to believe, then, that although Judge Roberts may have been nominated during an extremely polarized time in our political history, and by one of the country's most uncompromising administrations, he is still a wonderful candidate for the position of Chief Justice. I hope that you will consider his qualifications outside the scope of simply the political, and instead consider him as a great legal scholar and judge. I believe he will serve this country well for many years to come.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Where racism is still alive and well

My ferret friend took issue with my post on racism a few days back, but to his credit, he misunderstood part of what I was saying. Basically, I wasn't saying it's racist to show black folks committing crimes (although I'd be happy to show him some interesting statistics from media studies showing how news broadcasts disproportionately feature black folks committing crime instead of whites. Nor was I arguing that just because more people of color are arrested does that a priori mean we are all racists.

The Disproportionate Minority Contact issue in the juvenile justice (and criminal justice) system means that people of color are in the system in numbers beyond what we would expect from their presence in the general population. Many statistical studies have shown that, controlling for actual crime rates (on self-reports and in comparison studies), people of color are arrested, tried, incarcerated, etc. in numbers disproportionate to their proportion of the population. That means that even if blacks or hispanics or vietnamese folks actually committed more crime than whites, they still are arrested and incarcerated more than whites are.

The point is not that we should stop catching people of color who commit crime, but that we shouldn't be overlooking the white folks who do drugs at up to six times the rate of black folks or who commit white collar crime at similarly disproportionate rates and never get caught. (end of rant)

A quick note on the Katrina disaster: there are a number of news stories that demonstrate how the federal response was less organized and useful than it was for past hurricane disasters (i.e. Andrew). However, I don't think it's right to jump to accusing federal agencies and the President of racism just because the disaster response was bungled. After all, there are plenty of alternative explanations, such as Mr. Brown of FEMA being an unqualified nepotistic appointee, President Bush playing guitar and eating cake for two days after New Orleans was swamped, or the large number of National Guard stationed overseas in our new front in the war on terror.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nerd's Harry Potter experience ruined in nerdiest way imagineable

From the Star Tribune paper in Minneapolis, a story of someone's Harry Potter experience being ruined by a plot spoiler:
"I was happily playing my online drug of choice, "World of Warcraft." While my orc warrior wandered through the streets of Orgimmar, a troll ran through town screaming, "SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE! SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!" I hadn't even started the book yet. In a fit of rage, I decided to duel the troll. Didn't work. He killed me. Stupid trolls."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Never, ever give up your vacation

It's hard work being president. That's why, despite being fully aware of the scope and timing of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush took some badly needed R&R time, eating cake and playing guitar! This man disgusts me. Can we please have a president who gives a damn? Or even pretends to a little more rapidly?

Oh, and just to show you where the noble, first amendment protected press is on this one, here's the most insightful look I've seen of the looting in New Orleans. Yes, from American's Finest News Source, no less.

Some politicians are dumb

I qualify my title because I happen to know quite a few people in politics who are really bright, but some national political figures are doing their profession a disservice (again). The NY Times reports that several states and the federal government are contemplating ideas such as price controls, repealing gas taxes, and other interventions to help bring prices down. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea:

1. Demand - Economics 101 teaches us that lower prices increase demand. As the photo caption in the Times article points out, some people stop buying gas when it gets more expensive. Lowering the price will encourage them to buy more. If our problem is supply interruptions, spiking demand by lowering prices seems to be A Bad Idea.

2. Conservation - the best way to make someone change their habits is to make it expensive. For example, every $1 increase in cigarette taxes reduces smoking by 10%. If we want people to conserve gas by buying hybrids, carpooling, etc...then lowering gas prices is the last thing to be doing.

3. Investing for the future - we all know that gas is limited. It may not run out for decades, but we might as well start preparing now. You know all that technological innovation that's supposedly going to save our assess when oil runs out? Well, even the smartest tech can't compete with government subsidies for gas and oil. Let's give hydrogen, wind power, and the rest a fair shake. In fact, let's use that gas tax revenue to invest in alternatives so we don't torpedo our economy with shortsightedness. We've tried that plenty of times already via the deficit, needless wars, and other innovations of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

They Grow Up Fast

I'm currently studying adolescent development for a study on the juvenile justice system in my state. The material I'm reading is a fascinating look at how brain development during adolescence molds kids from mental incompentents in terms of judgment and reason to full adults. It becomes all the more interesting in the context of the justice system, because in the more serious cases, the desire is to punish youth like adults.

Two years ago, a 15-year-old kid took his father's pistol to school and murdered two people. He killed one kid on accident, and then chased down a second and shot him in the head in cold blood. I don't deny the murder was heinous, but the question is whether or not this kid really deserves the life sentence he received last week.

One study in particular I've read shows that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for judgment, reasoning, and impulse control. New research shows that this area doesn't fully develop until humans reach their mid-20s. The fascinating connection to criminal justice is that judgment, reasoning, and impulse control are key tools to both avoid criminal activity and to being competent to stand trial. So if a 15-year-old kid commits a horrible crime, there are two serious questions:
1) Did he know better or was he developmentally capable of controlling himself?
2) Is he competent to stand trial and is he as culpable as a fully developed adult for the murder?

I feel like this kid's sentence was a political thing. He ran someone down and shot them in the forehead - the gruesome nature of the crime insured he'd stand trial as an adult whether or not his brain really makes him one. If he'd been sentenced in juvenile court, he'd have received treatment, done time for community service, gone through therapy, and had a second chance at life at age 21. Instead, he can't get parole until 57.

One commentator on juvenile court says that the reason we even have a juvenile court system is that kids deserve a chance to emerge from their juvenile delinquency with their "life chances intact." I know that the two dead kids won't get their chance, but will two wrongs make a right?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Race as humor

My friends and I, white middle-class folk, often josh around about racial stereotypes. It's probably easy, given the countless advantages we've enjoyed growing up, attending good schools, and (for many of us) getting advanced degrees. So it hit me when two thoughts intersected this weekend: a friend mentioning his interest in race relations and some good journalism on race from the Daily Kos readers.

This country still has a lot of racism. It's easy sometimes to take to heart what the Bill Cosby's of the world have to say about attitudes against achievement in certain segments of the population. I think it's attractive because believing it means that it absolves me of responsibility. But I and my white counterparts could probably stand to do a little more to protest racism when it so clearly rears its head as it did in those AP picture captions.

I'm glad to find myself doing a bit these days doing research on juvenile justice and investigating what insiders call disproportionate minority contact (DMC). It's a technical term that basically means blacks, hispanics, and other racial minorities are overrepresented in arrests, incarcerations, and other aspects of the juvenile justice system in ways that clearly have nothing to do with a propensity to commit crimes.

One study I read discussed how probation officers were more likely to say black kids were "internally motivated" (by bad attitudes, disrespect for authority, etc...) to be delinquent while white kids are seen as "externally motivated" (affected by drug/alcohol addiction, mentall illness, family dysfunction...) Funny part is, white kids are the real druggies in America and black kids disproportionately live in families that put them at a higher risk for delinquency. So, as usual, things are bass ackwards.

I guess the point is that we have a long way to go, despite having constitutions, bills of rights, and laws that all support the spirit of equality.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The economics of gas gouging

Since Hurricane Katrina took out a wide swath of oil platforms and refineries on the Gulf Coast (see this cool NY Times graphic),
there have been widespread accounts of price gouging at the gas pump. Some folks have reported gas prices as high as $5 a gallon in the immediate vicinity of New Orleans. Others have reported that gas shortages are making it hard to find places to fill up. I guess I get confused when people talk of price gouging, though, because there's some basic economics behind the higher prices.

I realize that it is considered morally reprehensible to raise prices in response to natural disaster, but gasoline is a little different from water, food, or shelter. First of all, it's not a survival necessity. Second, the supply is very limited. Gas stations need their tanks refilled regularly and a disaster that wipes out infrastructure suddenly makes gas very scarce. Econ 101 teaches us that scarce items should become more expensive, since people become more willing to pay higher prices for scarce items. But isn't that price gouging?

I say no. There are plenty of examples of people acting panicky and irrational after disasters like this, and artificially low prices just encourages it. If gasoline has to stay cheap, people will fill their car plus 3 or 4 extra gas canisters (just to be safe). There's no quicker way to guarantee the gas will run out. If, on the other hand, a gas station can charge whatever it wants, some people will decide not to buy gas, a few people that really need it won't be able to afford it. But at least we won't suffer widespread scarcity.

I'm no fan of paying $3 a gallon for my gasoline, but I don't really have a problem paying fair market value.