Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 In Review

New Year's is a relatively arbitrary time point. Still, it has its uses. Large numbers of people take advantage of their inability to remember what number to date checks with as a chance to improve themselves. As anyone who reads this blog knows by now, I'm not working for a standard set of New Year's resolutions, but am in a multi-year plan of accomplishing things. I should be at roughly 36 of the items completed by now. Let's see where I stand:

Things definitely completed:

#4. My committee has been formed, and even met with.
#6. I had a poster at this year's Gordon Research Conference on Microbial Population Biology.
#7. I'm not required to take any more classes for my PhD. I might sit in on a few more, but no more are required.
#10. I'm hoping to make this an even more permanent habit, but the lab notebook was followed rigidly for a month.
#12. The Army ROTC requirements are done. Easily the hardest were the 42 pushups.
#13. My best mile is now 5:59.
#14. A 5 mile run is unpleasant, but has been done. Only once, thus far.
#15. I've bench pressed my own weight repeatedly, but the first was 155 when I weighed 152.
#17. The website allowed me to track everything I ate for a week. I realized I needed to start eating more. Not what I was hoping to hear, but oh well.
#20. I feel I know how to play racquetball now. Jeff is once again beating me regularly, in large part due to having a better racquet than his old one, but I no longer feel incompetent at it.
#22. Yay for handiness, I now have a nice soft black scarf.
#38. I had a very pleasant date with a guy I hope I'll be seeing again, if he's not too upset with me.
#41. I saw the sunrise the night/morning I was reading the 7th Harry Potter book.
#45. I got to see the Perseid meteor shower while visiting my Dad in southern Canada, well out of any major light dome. There's something to be said for lying down in a hot tub at the beach watching meteors.
#59. By buying a book of NY Times crossword puzzles and looking for one that didn't require me to know many proper names of celebrities and/or athletes, this wasn't too onerous.
#62. A cousin's wedding in MA this summer filled the travel requirement.
#64. Yeah, yeah, it'll increase my risk of skin cancer, etc. I didn't burn, and actually getting tan meant a lot of time out in the sun, reading. It was enjoyable.
#65. I've started getting my hair cut at the training studio for the local fancy place. I go in and tell them I want something shorter than it is while being cut while also being very low maintenance. They've consistently given me a very well-done version of...the same hairstyle I've been kind of sporting since I was 10.
#67. Origami flowers are flowers nonetheless.
#68. There are several possible calls for this one. I'm now considering it to be the Julie Moffitt CDs I gave my Dad for Christmas, as he loves her music and I know her from college and thus want to support her music career. Win-win.
#73. I watched a live-action version of Wind in the Willows on Masterpiece Theatre. It was annoying watching British men in suits pretend to be toads and rats and whatnot, but part of the annoyance was probably due to my not liking the story line.
#78. I again reference the Julie Moffitt CDs.
#81. The Summer Circle Theatre had some fun plays, and were free to boot. Woot.
#84. There have been several high school friends I'd lost touch with who I've written to this year--primarily Mike D, Kathleen, and Anna.
#86. My IRA is now a real investment vechicle.
#87. The first jigsaw of the year was a circular undersea fantasy.
#88. Being practical is sometimes good, so the basement's organized.
#89. I didn't eat any of the chocolate chip cookies I made at Christmas.
#90. My brother now has even more financial motive to kill me beyond merely not diluting his inheritance from my Dad.
#94. I'm past the 30 mark in blog entries, though admittedly not by a lot.
#95. The verdict: silly, but not as silly as I expected to look with facial hair.
#101. Yay for good credit.

That's 32 definite completions. Now let's take a look at some arguable ones:

#1. I need to have written a scientific paper. I've done a lot of work updating an article for the Encyclopedia of Evolution for the new edition, adding some new studies to it, reworking some of the old ones. I'll get an authorship credit for this, in addition to my advisor (who wrote the first edition of this article and has also done a lot of editing for it, both on his old work and on my additions).

#27. This site isn't for a class, but I've done very little on the building end of it. So maybe?

#37. There is no official Boggle association. I've been playing on Facebook, where I got myself into the top 1% of players. Some people I've talked with about this call that a good enough substitution; others disagree.

#44. Some friends and I drove an hour and a half to go to a David Sedaris reading. Is that far enough to be a road trip?

#97. I've added information to several Wikipedia articles, but never written one from scratch.

So, that's 5 more arguable ones. I've also got some large ones partially done, so I think overall I'm pretty much on track.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Immigrations and schools

Recent list work: 9 (done with stats. Whoo!), 38 (yay), 37 (arguably)

This piece from the NY Times caught my eye today. It concerns the educational challenges of illegal immigrants. As the article points out, since a 1982 Supreme Court case, public schools have had to accept and educate illegal immigrants through high school, but that requirement stops at college.

Let me start off by saying that I call a spade a spade. I don't like the term "undocumented", because it glosses over the face that people who do not have visas or citizenship are in this country illegally. If you immigrate to a country without following that country's laws on becoming a citizen or leaving by the end of your visa, you have immigrated illegally. Hence, you are an illegal immigrant. That does not make you evil, it does not necessarily make you a bad person, but it is a description of your legal status which isn't euphemistic.

That being said, I have a lot of sympathy for individuals who immigrated as children, regardless of whether that immigration was legal or not. At the age of 6, no one should be expected to understand international law. If we agree that you're not old enough to be legally responsible for crimes like murder and theft, which are generally pretty obviously wrong, it is not reasonable to expect you to responsible for moving somewhere with your parents or aunt or whatever. This seems like common sense to me.

I dislike that the federal Congress has passed a law barring states from offering in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. This does not seem to me to be the job of the federal government. I don't believe states should be required to offer such tuition discounts, but I don't think they should be barred from it either. I applaud the states which have found ways around this, most notably by basing in-state tuition on having graduated from a school in that state rather than a legal residence.. The only problem I foresee with that is for people who take time off between one graduation and the next enrollment, and potentially move across a state line in the interim. I imagine there must be a way around this.

Fundamentally, I think something needs to be done about giving children who were brought to this country illegally a path to citizenship. I'm not sure what the best plan is, though. Making a bright-age-line is the immediate idea, whereby you could gain citizenship if you immigrated illegally before age X, but not if you were older. The problem with that is that the most logical age, legally, is 18, and I find that troublesome. It seems like that would encourage a lot of 17 year olds to sneak across the border, as they'd be old enough to realize the tremendous advantages that come with US citizenship. But what age would be fair? 14? 12? 16? I don't know.

Then there are issues related to the effects this would have on legal immigration. As it is, for instance, it's easier to gain legal immigration rights if you have close relatives who are citizens--most notably, spouse, parent, or child. If we grant citizenship to children brought here illegally, we would be increasing the probability that their parents would then be granted citizenship, so we would in effect be giving an advantage to someone who broke the rules for others as well as themselves. You'd be more likely to be allowed to stay permanently if you smuggled additional people across the border. That's not right. But, at the same time, I like the idea of equality before the law for all citizens. It would strike me as very much against the notions of equality to say, for instance, that legal citizens who earned their citizenship after being brought here illegally as children are *not* allowed to use their citizenship to help bring their parents in, which other legal citizens are.

I don't know what's to be done. Moreso than most political hot-buttons, I feel this issue is inherently complex. On the one hand, fully open borders are not a viable solution, as feel-good as that solution might seem; the prosperity of our country would simply attract more people than we can truly afford to let in, and our quality of life would drop by too much for that to be feasible. On the other hand, our quality of life would also drop if we sealed all of our borders entirely. Our country attracts many highly educated and skilled workers from India, China, South Korea, and the industrialized world. We bring in a lot of hard workers from Latin America, many of whom are unfairly branded with stereotypes about lazy Mexicans. Our agriculture depends in large part on unskilled migrant farm labor, and many of our unpleasant service jobs in food service, sanitation, meat packing, etc are filled by immigrants because few citizens are willing to take those jobs for what they pay. For the most part, immigrants come here to stay, and people who are willing to travel long distances in search of a better life are the sort of people you want to have on your side. It's clear to anyone thinking about this issue rationally that a balance needs to be struck. What I'm unclear on is where that balance should be.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Recent list work: #9, #13 (I did it today. Whoo!), #22 (finished!), #39 (work in progress), #69 (Jean seemed inordinately pleased with some chicken and potatoes I brought her while she was on crutches), #69 (Catch 22 is finally done. Also, Fathers and Sons, which I liked), #90.

Time has a very interesting poll about morality at the moment. Please go look at it first; it will take you less than 5 minutes to answer it.

(waiting for you to go answer the poll questions)

(no, really, go do so)


I'd heard about this poll before, but this time I get to see the exact scenarios laid out. My answers, for those who are interested, are: yes, yes, yes, no, no.

In the first scenario, the baby's crying will lead to not only my death, but also to the deaths of others, including itself. Obviously, you try other means to quiet the baby first: give it something to suck on, rock it, change its diaper, whatever. But the scenario states that the baby can't be quieted in any other way. If that baby continues to scream, it's going to die very soon no matter what. Better that it be just the baby that dies, and not take me and the other refugees with it. I'm smothering the baby.

In the second scenario, if someone isn't kicked off the lifeboat we're going to capsize and all die. If one individual is already grievously injured and bound to die soon anyways, and killing him just a little bit sooner preserves my life and those of others, I'm pushing him out of the boat. I've got a strong survival instinct.

In the third scenario, we have a group of 5 idiots on one train track not paying attention to oncoming vehicles, and 1 individual on another doing the same. They're all equally stupid, and none of them are guaranteed to die soon if I don't send the train at them. I therefore bow to the notion that 1 death is better than 5 deaths, and send the train at the lone individual.

In the fourth scenario, we have the same 5 idiots unaware of an oncoming train, but I'm on a bridge over the track with a stranger, and if I push him off the train will stop before it hits the 5 clueless. In this case, the idiots on the track are more culpable than the guy on the bridge with me, who is entirely blameless. I'm not going to make him pay the consequences of the idiots being idiots. I'll yell for them to get out of the way and maybe throw rocks at them if I think I have a chance of getting their attention, but I'm not going to kill an innocent bystander to save them.

In the 5th case, the guy in the catapult is just as innocent as the guy on the bridge. So, I won't kill him to save 5 idiots. I'm assuming he's not been sentenced to sit in the catapult as payment for a crime, nor is he being an idiot and playing in a catapult which has obviously been constructed to fling people at oncoming trains.

Of the people who had responded when I wrote this, 70% agreed with me in the first case, 56% in the second, 79% in the 3rd, 60% in the 4th, and 52% in the 5th. I'm surprised more people are OK with killing the baby than the presumably adult lifeboat passenger, but maybe they care that the baby probably won't really understand its coming death while the lifeboat passenger will.

What are your answers?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Shoe size as a marker for something other than what you might think

In many ways, I'm used to being unusual.

There are the obvious personality aspects here to consider. I'm interested in politics, but am not a member of a political party. I'm a definite nerd, but I play several sports...and yet don't enjoy watching anyone else do so, outside of the Olympics. I'm sarcastic while not being mean about it, wholesome while very libertarian in my views of what's acceptable behavior, and one of those adults who enjoys spending time on a swing. Clearly, these are not all typical traits.

Then there are the physical traits. My eyes change color multiple times each day, an inherited useless mutant power than my mother had as well. My body temperature is unusually low, and combined with what I assume is relatively poor circulation to my extremities, my hands are often perceived by other people to be colder than the air. (My toes are often colder than my fingers, but fewer people come into contact with those). My hearing, perhaps in an effort to make up for my relatively weak eyesight, is off the charts, routinely causing me to flinch from noises others don't react to, and possibly don't hear.

But nothing quite drives home the physical oddity of being me like attempting to buy clothing.

For one, I am somewhat counter to the standard American trend of trying to achieve seal-like proportions. While I have managed to gain almost 25 pounds in 2 years, I'm technically still underweight. For part of this year's Halloween costume, I bought a children's large t shirt, and had to actively work at shrinking it to make it fit. This is somewhat disturbing as a roughly 6 foot tall guy. I typically have to buy my belt in the children's department, as there aren't small enough ones in the men's department. One of these times, I'm going to just give up and buy a cloth Batman belt. Nothing says grown up professional quite like superheroes holding up your pants.

In theory, we guys have it much easier when it comes to buying clothing than women do. Women's clothing comes in sizes which bear little relationship to anything physical. As best as I can tell, they are primarily even integers, but sometimes include 0 or 00 (and if 0 and 00 are different from each other, one of them has to not fit the category of even integers). Clearly, those aren't capable of being physical realities, and may be related to the lumber industry's conception of a 2 by 4, which doesn't measure 2 of anything by 4 of the same thing. One of my high school friends had her prom dress taken into a size 0, and it was still loose enough that she had to wrap herself in double sided tape to not end up doing a stripper impersonation. She may have been thin, but she definitely had a positive mass.

Men, on the hand, have clothing measurements for many things based on inches (at least for those of us resisting the metric system. The US and Libya, partners in solidarity for the Imperial measurement system). Pants come with numbers representing circumference of waist and length of inseam. Dress shirts are measured in circumference of neck and length of sleeve. Under this system, all a guy would need to do is find out those 4 measurements, and he would be able to tell if a piece of clothing would fit.

Of course, that's not how it works. I blame the Baby Boomers, and not just because I like blaming things on my parents' generation.

The general explanation here is that the Baby Boomers are economically powerful, aging, and somewhat vain. They don't really want to admit that they aren't the same size that they were in high school or their 20s. Therefore, clothing companies have catered to their vanity, first with "relaxed fit" sizes, and then just by blatantly lying on the alleged dimension. This, in turn, has eroded the previous pressure to conform to market standards, so now not only the waist is mismarked, so is the inseam. In jeans these days, I can vary from a 29 to a 32 in the waist, and a 30 to a 34 in the inseam. I presume I don't fluctuate over a range of 4 inches in height in the several minutes it takes to walk to the next store and try on a pair, so blatant lying in the packaging seems a more likely culprit.

However, despite all my physical oddities, I always was able to take comfort in one speck of normalness: my feet. My feet are the average and also modal size of feet of the adult man in this country (10.5 shoe size), so there are virtually always shoes available in my size. This helps a lot in the rented footwear industry (a largely unrecognized affiliation of pastime activities, including but not limited to bowling and ice skating), as well as in actually purchasing shoes, as the market will demand that most styles be produced in my size.

My confidence in my normal feet, however, has been severely damaged lately.

I bought a pair of new sneakers yesterday, all the better go about sneaking. I'm not quite a ninja, but I'm working on that whole stealthiness thing. Also, it's nice to have shoes with shock absorption properties. I found a nice pair of shoes, and tried one of them on. It seemed quite comfortable, and the price was right, so I bought it. Also, I bought its mate, without trying it on.

Apparently, this was a mistake.

I discovered today that the left shoe does indeed fit perfectly. The right shoe, on the other hand, is too small. Even worse, it's also too small on the the right foot.

I have come up with several explanations for this. For one, the right shoe could have been mismarked. This seems implausible, as it seems to be the same length as the left one, but it's possible. Another is that I have a previously undiscovered physical freakishness. Alternately, evil gnomes could have caused my right foot to swell today for no discernible reason, and thus feel too big for the shoe. And, of course, there is the possibility that since it was obtained from an outlet store, the shoe may have been defective.

In any event, I plan on returning to the scene of the crime, to see if I can find a version of that shoe which actually fits my right foot. Hopefully, I shall be able to convince the store people to allow me to exchange either the right shoe or the entire pair for one that fits. Otherwise, I shall have to look up the website I've heard about allowing people with mismatched feet to trade shoes with similarly mismatched individuals. And, if so, I'll have to join their ranks with yet another unusual feature.

And, hey, if nothing else, potentially yet another useless mutant power.

UPDATE: The exchange was successful, though they didn't have any size 11 in stock. I tried on a size 11.5, and they seemed to work, so now I have one pair of slightly larger shoes than my others. My range of useless mutant powers has not yet expanded in ways that I know about.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Recent list work: 9, 13, 22, 47, 68 (possibly), 70.

The real purpose of this post is that I went to a pair of Halloween parties last night, and I wanted to post pictures of the two stages of the costume. I was not creative this year, and completely ripped off a television character's Halloween costume from last year. I was Clark Kent. Overall, not a very uncomfortable costume. I managed to shrink a Superman t shirt through repeated high heat dryer cycles, despite the fact that the shirt was allegedly a children's large (I just couldn't bring myself to try on the children's medium), so it was tight enough without being uncomfortably so. Dress pants and shoes, and an unbuttoned shirt and untied tie aren't too bad. The least comfortable part of the whole costume was the pair of pure red briefs which I had poking up from my waistband--to get them to poke up that high without being loose at the waist, I ended up having to buy smaller underwear than I normally wear and pulling them up as high as they would go, which was less than fun by the end of the evening. Anyway, pictures:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Indignation from a lack of understanding economics

As I often do, I'm reacting to a NYTimes piece about education. Here's the link. Basically, a student organization known as the Students for Free Culture are pretty much opposed to all intellectual property right law. They believe that music, art, and books should be freely available, all software should be open source (though the reporter never uses that term, that's what's meant), drug patents shouldn't be enforced, etc. Some members are upset at being fined for illegally downloading music, but others are protesting what they see as too high of prices of powerful medicines, etc.

I can see why they'd be upset. The fines for illegally downloading music strike me as disproportionately high. And it can be hard to think that companies should be able to profit from the illness of others. But the students interviewed in this article demonstrate a striking lack of understanding of basic economic principles.

Let's start with the medicines. Drug development is hugely expensive. Most drugs never make it to market, and many which do are never widely prescribed. To pay for all the costs of developing a drug--the huge number of man-hours of design, testing, revision, FDA approval, and all the failed attempts--the profit per successful drug needs to be very high, or else the companies wouldn't be financially viable. Also important to note is that the company is not benefiting from the illness; the company is economically benefiting from the treatment of that illness. If we remove patent protection from medicines, it will no longer be profitable to develop new drugs (the margins of producing a generic drug are not high enough to fund R&D), and we will get no better at treating any illness than we already are. How does that sound to you?

The same can be said to some extent about music. Popular songs can be accessed for free by your radio only because you become a target audience that advertisers are willing to gain access to. mp3s, coming as they do without advertisement revenues, will therefore require some economic benefit to their producers or else they won't be produced. At least, not anything like they are now. Garage bands and amateur groups would still probably make recordings, but studio recordings would be a thing of the past.

The same goes for visual artwork. Museums have to pay their curators, their utilities, maintenance and repair costs, etc. Some people will obviously contribute to them as charities, but either you need to have some sort of admission price, or substantial tax revenue allocated to them. If you rely on taxes, then you are charging everyone for a service only some are choosing to avail themselves of. That's not necessarily a bad things -- I'm highly in favor of public funding for libraries, for instance -- but it's something you need to be aware of.

At the end of the day, one of the students interviewed expressed the view that college is supposed to be separate from the rest of the world, and for the sharing and reusing of culture. The sharing of culture is certainly a part of college, but it's not the sole purpose by any means. One of the primary missions of higher education is supposed to be the development of critical thinking. I feel the students quotes in this article could use a bit more of that before they continue with their sharing and reusing of culture.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In which Mike goes to a party

I realize that for the most part I don't really have regular readers. That's fine. This whole posting thing is more for me to vent my various weirdnesses than to entertain a specific following. But, to the extent that I do have readers, I figure the least I can do is entertain you.

OK, so the least I can do is actually to completely ignore you, but that's less fun.

As most people who know me have picked up by now, I'm something of a story teller at heart. I view my life as largely consisting of a string of amusing anecdotes. I'm not positive if more sitcom moments actually happen in my life than in most peoples', or if I'm merely more aware of them when they do. But the fact remains that I tend to end up with lots of random stories. So I'm now going to try writing up at least one of them a month (hopefully more frequently than that, but let's start with baseline goals), though admittedly in a less-than-polished form because it's just a blog entry. We'll see how long this experiment lasts.


Parties have always somewhat mystified me. I know the standard view of college is lots of people partying pretty much whenever they aren't pulling desperate all-nighters, but that wasn't my experience. My friends and I did play a lot of party games in college, though. By this, I mean Trivial Pursuit, Taboo, that sort of thing. We weren't much into "drink till I puke" or "sleep with random strangers", games which I hear tell were quite popular in other social circles. Our "parties" also rarely even involved food or drink, unless they were potlucks. My view of parties might be a bit off because of this.

Nonetheless, I was randomly invited to a party last weekend by a guy I hardly know. I was told to bring a bottle of wine if I could, and since I had one on hand that I had no plans to drink myself, I figured what the heck. I even showed up an hour late, fighting against my normal compulsion to be places five minute early. Although the house number was not clearly visible from the street, I correctly surmised that the brightly lit house surrounded by a horde of 20- and 30-somethings was probably my destination.

As has already been mentioned, my view of parties may be somewhat off. But I do think this may have been the strangest party yet discovered by modern science.

For starters, there was the aspect of the spread. A first glance of the table indicated that it was pretty much a wine and cheese sort of party--crackers, cheese, bread, grapes, even shrimp on the table; various bottles of wine along the window sill. Eventually, though, my eye was drawn to the silver platter of...Hostess cupcakes. I doubt even Martha Stewart knows what fork to use to serve those.

Before arriving, I only knew my host. I thought this would be awkward. I soon learned, however, that basically no one knew more than a handful of other people before walking in. The guest list was a relatively random assortment of various people the host had met. Or not. While most seemed to be former dates, roommates, coworkers, friends, and relatives (including parents), there were also not only the dates of these people, but random other friends of theirs who had some free time. Or their siblings.

The lack of awkwardness in not knowing people was dutifully compensated for in the awkwardness of the people who did do the talking, however. I learned more than I ever intended to about online sites catering to May-December gay romances from a man clearly planning to be in the December category. I would have admired the self confidence involved in leaving his shirt unbuttoned to the navel more if he wasn't standing so close to me that I could make a good guess how long ago he had showered.

The party included live performance, in the guise of a band. The band set up in the third floor bedroom, which had apparently been recently reincarnated from a former life as an attic and was still getting its karma squared away. A projector was throwing images of seemingly random black-and-white stock footage onto the back wall and the fronts of the musicians--none of whom lived in the same city as each other, nor the city where the party was. The band consisted of:

~ Lead singer, on electric guitar
~ Backup singer, on electric banjo
~ Drummer
~ Guy who started out on the musical saw, later branching to accordion and trumpet

They took the tried-and-true method of making up for skill deficits with abundance of volume. Vast quantities of music spurted from their amplifiers, causing the floor to shake with each note struck. This did have the interesting effect of making the projected people dance even while they were doing things like climbing out fire escapes. I was glad at least someone was dancing to the music, as the room was way too small for us three dimensional types to try it.

Once my ears threatened to bleed, I made my escape from the band's room and retreated back to the first floor, where I attacked the cheese while listening to people discuss local politics. This was more what I imagined a wine and cheese party to be. Eventually, though, I realized that the two people discussing local politics were totally unaware anyone else was in the room. This may or may not have had something to do with the Jell-O shots sitting in front of them. After two hours at the party, I made my escape.

Lessons learned:

The primary activity at a traditional party is drinking. This is followed by making awkward small talk with strangers, and feeling music through your feet because your ears are so horrified by the volume that they quit alerting you to it.

Not knowing people is not an impediment when they don't know each other, and many of them are drunk anyway.

Being on the young side in a room full of somewhat tipsy gay men will make lots of people talk to you.

Escaping while things are completely chaotic does not make the host angry with you.

All in all, I'm glad I went. Still, it's not something I envision myself doing regularly. That is, until I find myself craving the twang of horsehair scraped against carpentry tools.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ridiculousness rewarded

It's been a long time since I've posted, but things like this just make me really annoyed, and I have enough time to post a quick reaction.

In this NYTimes piece, a teacher has been assigning homework to his high school students' parents. The parents are required to read various items the children have been studying--poems, short stories, excerpts from speeches, etc.--and provide written commentary on them. This is done in the belief that it will increase the parental involvement in the educational process. Parents are warned that if they do not complete these assignments, the student's grades may suffer. The teacher is being lauded for his innovative approach, he receives a relatively uncritical write up in a prominent newspaper, and other educators are looking into using these methods.

I call this absurd. I would have objected to such insanity as a student, and I would continue to do so as an adult.

As a student, my grade is rightly dependent on my work. I am the one being evaluated, not my parent. I am the one who is both to put in the work and receive the reward. It is unreasonable to hold my grade hostage to the efforts of my parents.

Beyond that, the teacher is drastically overreaching his authority. The parents are not his students; he therefore has no right to compel specific actions from them.

Having parents involved in a child's education can be a wonderful thing. I'm happy my own cared about my academic progress. I did not, however, ever have them check my answers, or get their input on literature or historical events or whatnot. Nor should I have ever been required to, except possibly having them as interview subjects for something like a family history project or a poll to determine the level of knowledge about a given subject outside of my classroom. Just because this teacher has noble aspirations does not mean that his methods are acceptable. If this article is indeed an accurate reflection of how such assignments play out in his classroom, I wish more parents would be willing to tell him directly that this is an unacceptable assignment which he has no business requiring. Nor, for that matter, would the situation be better if he merely offered extra credit to those whose parents did fill out such commentaries. Placing the burden of a child's success so directly on another party is a stupid idea in a culture that is already so quick to blame others for any shortcoming. There needs to still be a role of personal responsibility in education.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The coach's son

Recent list work: 4, 94.

This article from Slate is a bit old, but I came across it today and it got me thinking. For those who don't want to follow the link, it's about how the coach's son often gets to monopolize time in the game in youth sports, play the coveted positions, and get onto travel teams, regardless of skill level. I've seen various examples of the coach's son in my own athletic experiences, and I think this stance is an oversimplification.

For one, I was a coach's son for a while. My Dad coached my softball team in the summer for a few years when I was a small kid--part of that me being from a 1950s sitcom thing. My Dad was worried about people thinking that I'd get perks for being the coach's son, so in reality...I played fewer innings than anyone else who showed up to every game, and got to play the positions I enjoyed less often than the other players on the team got to for the first few games, until a few of the other players spoke up and said it wasn't fair that I wasn't playing as much.

A similar but rather opposite experience took place a few summers later, on a different team. That coach kept putting his son in as the starting pitcher. His son, while a highly skilled baseball and softball player, was not a softball pitcher. he was on our high school's baseball team, but I think he was short stop. He finally snapped at one point and yelled at his dad that our team had the top two pitchers in the league, he wasn't one of them, and he wasn't going to pitch in another game even if that meant he had to sit on the bench. These two incidents illustrate my point that I think sometimes adults tend to forget that many kids have a definite sense of fair play, and even unwritten rules are typically enforced rather equitably.

These softball teams I was on weren't competitive ones. There were no playoffs, nothing special for being the best team in the league, none of that. Even so, most of the players both wanted to play fair and wanted to win. I imagine on more competitive teams, the desire to win increases substantially, so the coach faces a potential problem from overplaying his son: the rest of the team being resentful not because the coach's son gets to play more than they do, but because the coach's son gets to play more often than players he's worse than. That can lead to a pretty bad backlash.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Another take on test scores

Recent list work: #9, #94

I've spent much of today catching up on recent issues of Nature and Science, as I've not been reading them as much this summer as I should. So, this is old news, but I just came across it today.

For those with access to Science, a few letters appear in the June 22nd issue regarding a study from February advancing a claim that higher standardized test scores are a predictor in graduate student success, as measured by things such as publications, etc. The first of these is the one I think is the more insightful.

As the letter's authors (Manuel Lerdau and Christopher Avery) point out, the initial finding hypothesized the twin causal links: 1) greater aptitude --> higher test scores, and 2) greater aptitude --> increased probability of success. That's a potentially valid causal chain. On the other hand, they suggest that the causal chain might be more along the lines of higher test scores --> greater support (both financial and mentoring) --> greater probability of success. This also strikes me as potentially valid.

As the letter writers state, these two different causal chains lead to very different policy views. I think it would be interesting to try to disentangle the two effects. One way of doing so off the top of my head would be to look at departments where students are given essentially the same financial support and teaching duties regardless of whether they have fellowships or not. (For instance, Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences). Another would be to look at students who have the very high test scores but don't have fellowships for other reasons--perhaps by being non-citizens and therefore disqualified from national fellowships such as those through the NSF. It would also be interesting to look at students who have fellowships and thus don't need to teach, yet have lower standardized test scores than peers in their departments. There could be some difficult things to control for in these examples--for instance, students with low test scores who have fellowships most likely have significant undergraduate research experience, which might let them hit the ground running--but I think the general idea of studying these things is worth exploring.

The yearly fun with numbers

Today, US News & World Report released their annual college rankings. And, as always, there's fallout from it. This NY Times article, for instance, mentions one college administrator who filled out that he didn't know about any of his peer's programs, but gave his own school an outstanding rating. Other anecdotes are told of people knowing that other schools spread donations over multiple years to boost the alumni giving rate, and the like.

I'm sure that the existence of these rankings does alter how some institutions behave. However, I don't think these are all bad ways. My friends and I used to laugh about how our college -- USC -- had bought us by offering far more merit-based scholarships in an effort to boost their rankings. If this was the intent, it's worked; USC is now up to 27th, and it was 44th when I applied. Average SAT scores of the entering class went up substantially while I was there, and presumably have continued to do so. If that's being driven by the rankings, that's fine by me.

On the other hand, people really can take these numbers way too seriously. USC was the second lowest rated school I applied to at the time. I got into schools rated much higher, but didn't feel they were as good of a fit for me. There truly are intangibles which these numbers don't capture.

At the end of the day, I think these numbers are primarily useful for getting a general sense of roughly where a school falls. The differences, however, between schools nearby each other in the rankings are probably pretty small as far as what they will mean for your future. For instance, I felt that I wanted a school in the top 50 or so for undergrad, as that would put me in better standing for a good grad school. I didn't really think, though, that there'd be a big difference in my likelihood of acceptance coming from school 44 as there would have been from school 6. Given that the first grad school I went to was ranked #1 in my subject, it seems like that assumption was valid.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

List update 070816

Recent list accomplishments: #45, #64, #88
Other items which have been worked recently but not finished: #4, #9, #36, #69, #70, #94

At the moment, I'm happy about my phrasing with organize the basement. The basement's not entirely clean--I have about 3 garage bags' worth of stuff to throw out (but no garbage bags at home), and I'm still working on getting all the dirt out of it, but everything else is organized and it looks a lot better than it has since, oh, right around when I moved in. It'll be even better within a week, when my current renter takes all his stuff off to the dorm and I can move the shelving units I bought for it down to the basement and therefore not have things stacked quite so tightly.

Number 9 I still lag some on for having read and annotated some papers which I haven't stuck in EndNote yet. I need to do that soon.

Outside the realm of the list, things are going quite well. I spent a week and a half at my Dad's place on the lake, which was extremely relaxing. I've got a fairly good draft of an encyclopedia article in to my advisor, waiting for his feedback on it (which I might count as a scientific paper--it's going into an Encyclopedia of Microbiology and is 12,000 words long). I have a committee meeting schedule for next week, so it probably makes sense to not do a huge amount in the lab until then. And I have a new renter moving in today, who from what I can tell I'm going to get along with quite well.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

List update 070729

Recent list accomplishments: #6, #10, #41, #62, #65, #81, #84. Further progress has been made on #9, #13(6:20 a few weeks ago, since then I've slacked), #64, #69, #83, and #94.

At this point, I'm 210 days into the list, and should therefore have completed 21 items. At the moment, I've only completed 20, so I'm slightly behind. Still, there are several which are very close to being done (notably the form a committee one), so I'm feeling pretty good about it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Annoyance at trolls

After reading some utterly revolting commentary on Brendan's site (note: revulsion is not at all due to Brendan, who has no part in the racist commentary. He merely takes free speech seriously, and held his nose while allowing awful trash to spew out of the mouths of trolls), I am once again struck by the ability for people to be misinformed on science and try to use it in defense of their ridiculous notions. There's a lot of flat-out incorrect information out there concerning the biology of race, and I just eventually decided that I should say something about it.

1) It is technically incorrect to argue that there is only one human race. For this one, I blame a lot of science fiction writers for referring to sentient aliens as alien races. This, I believe, has caused people to think that race means the same thing as species; I admit when I was younger I was under that impression as well. In reality, a biological use of the word race is akin to that of breed: it is a group of individuals sharing common physical characteristics which differentiate that group from other members of the greater population. To this extent, there are human races, as it is indeed possible for most people on sight to distinguish, for instance, someone whose ancestry 1,000 years ago trace primarily to Europe from one whose ancestors at that time lived primarily in Australia. How many human races there are is up for considerable debate, but there are physical characteristics which differentiate people whose ancestry lies primarily in different geographical regions.

2) The fact that we can distinguish primary racial background from individuals with relatively low levels of population admixture in their background does not mean that we can distinguish racial background based on blood samples. There are a small number of known biological characteristics which are significantly more common in individuals of one population or another, which allows for a greater probability of guessing "correctly", but these are still probabilities. For instance, beta thalassemias are a class of blood disorders characterized by mutations in the splice sites of the hemoglobin beta protein. These are much more common in areas of the world with malaria, and different versions of the disorder are more or less common in various regions. If you have a blood sample showing a beta thalassemia of one particular type, you can say that it's more likely to be from someone with ancestry in Greece than a random blood sample is, for example. We can also use markers on things inherited from just one parent--the mitochondria to establish the matriline, the Y-chromosome to establish the patriline--and therefore trace a small percentage of any individual's genetic legacy fairly accurately. But this is only true for a small fraction of your genetic background, and it remains important to point out that ~85% of human genetic diversity remains within populations, and only ~15% exists between populations (Rosenberg et al, Science 2002). At the genetic level, humans are remarkably not diverse.

3) That being said, it is indeed possible for forensic scientists to make a determination about some racial characteristics from skulls. Morphometric data from skulls of individuals with low degrees of genetic admixture have some degree of differentiation which has been attributed to natural selection, particularly in characteristic regarding breadth and depth of nose (for example, Roseman and Weaver, Am. J. Physical Anthropol. 2004). However, I will also say from personal experience having looked at casts of human skulls, to the untrained eye the only difference among anatomically modern human skulls visible without the use of calipers is that of the Inuit v. all others, due to a distinct difference in roundness of the skull.

4) All of the above is written primarily about those rare populations where many generations of ancestry can be traced to the same geographical region. Particularly in modern times, though throughout human history and prehistory, there have been waves of migration and conquest, with substantial genetic exchange brought about therein. One consequence of the slave trade was indeed a greater degree of mixing of genetic information from Europe and Africa, more within the Americas than in Europe or Africa themselves. People often forget that we in the US are in a country of immigrants, and one in which significant amounts of genetic mixing have been common for centuries. If you take a random genetic sequence from you and two other individuals in this country, one who shares your self-described race and one who doesn't, unless the most recent common ancestor is within the past few generations you are not more likely to group with the person of your race than the person from outside it.

The level of information and logical reasoning in the commentary is severely lacking, from people arguing multiple different points of view. As a few quick examples for those who don't feel like reading the tripe: Black people are the descendants of Cain, and the mark of Cain is his ugly dark skin, and Cain was born from the union of Eve and the Serpent so therefore isn't a descendant of Adam like all white people are (let's argue against that with, say, Genesis 1:4 "Adam lay with his wife Eve and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain"). Greeks have a lot of Black blood in them, black women and mixed race children are inherently ugly (let's go with, say, the fact that the woman the Western world has held up as the ideal of beauty for centuries was a Greek woman by the name of Helen. This, incidentally, lends itself to the wonderful unit of beauty, the miliHelen: the level of beauty required to launch a single ship). Or we have the assertion that north Africans ruled Europe for 700 years (um, really? When? And who were they? The Moors held the Iberian penninsula for about 8 years, but the only major conquering of Europe which lasted any appreciable length of time was Rome conquering almost everything else, but last I checked Rome was in Europe, not Africa. Africa did conquer Europe when our own ancestors moved in and displaced the Neaderthals, but that's not history so much as prehistory). Other such drivel abounds, and none of it's really worth my time debunking. But, as is my wont, I will go after some of the misstatements, lies, and misuse of science. Race is a complicated matter in both biology and anthropology. If you're going to try to make assertions about what these disciplines have to say on the matter, spend the time to actually read about it in reputable journals first.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fun with insanity

I've not posted in quite a while. This is primarily due to the fact that I've been spending way too long in lab, grinding out data for the conference I'm going to next week. My poster's back from the printer today, so I'm set as far as that goes.

This leads me to my other form of insanity of late: Harry Potter.

It's long been known that I'm a fan of the series. I fully admit that I laughed at them until I became one of them. I've even been restructuring the end of my week in preparation for this. I have a copy reserved at my local bookstore, which I shall be purchasing at midnight. Shortly, I'm going to head over there and pick up a wristband, determining the order the books will be sold at midnight. Then I'll go home, have something to eat, maybe watch a movie I have on tape, and then head back out to the bookstore. I stayed up quite late last night to ensure that I won't get too sleepy to just read this in one sitting. I'm planning to make up some food this evening that can easily be eaten while reading, in case I get hungry.

I'd actually considered not going to a midnight release. The lead of the book over BitTorrent means that there are plenty of people who already know what happens. I have some concerns that some punk might decide it would be funny to show up to the bookstore and announce in a loud voice what happens, just to ruin it for everyone there. I may end up making use of my iPod to drown out the sounds of the crowd, just to avoid this possibility.

This all is somewhat insane. I'm a 26-year-old man restructuring part of my life in anticipation for a book whose intended target audience is teenagers. Fictional characters have become real enough to me that the death of a number of them would be enough to elicit an emotional reaction. And, yet, I recognize that this is in some ways the end of an era. I'm anticipating this book much less than I did the 5th or 6th book in the series, having begun my own reading of it shortly after the publication of the 4th. In some ways, I just don't want this series to be over. Sure, the books are great, and I really enjoy reading them, but a lot of the fun has been the discussing of the books with other fans. My college group got quite into the series as three of us all chose to read it at pretty much the same time, and our discussions of it prompted the others to read it as well--some because they thought it sounded interesting, others because they were sick of not knowing what we were talking about.

This is probably the last time in my life I'll be so eager to read a book that I plan on reading it the moment it's released. This is almost certainly the last time I'll worry about finding out about what happens in a book while making no effort to find out anything in advance. This book is the 7th year of Harry's life we've seen. The summer is also the 7th year since I've been reading the books. I must admit, I like the parallel.

I worry, as I've mentioned to friends over the past couple of years, that I'll be disappointed with the resolution. I'm trying my hardest to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt, but after the ending to book 6, I keep worrying that this will be Archetypal Video Game Plot. The Main Character and his Sidekicks will go on a Mystical Quest to collect the Numerologically Important Number of Magical Items so that they can Defeat the Evil Villain. I'm really hoping they don't leave off their final year at school and become dropouts in order to save the world, and I'll be annoyed if the kids manage to destroy all the remaining Horcruxes themselves in a year, when it took Dumbledore a year to track down the location of one Horcrux he already had a lead on, and the destruction of another one crippled him. Maybe it'll all turn out great and I'll be overjoyed. Maybe I'll be left wanting more. Maybe it'll leave me wishing the series had never been completed--kind of like how virtually everyone feels about the Matrix. We'll see. But, in the meantime, I have a book to read.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


I've been thinking about a few things to post lately, and I hope to get around to those soon. But this I just couldn't pass up:

The American Heritage Dictionary has produced a list of 100 words that they say every high school graduate should know. The list is kind of preposterous, but that's not why I wanted to say something about this one.

My mother was probably the most well-read person I have ever met. She spent a good amount of time as an English major in college. Apparently, back then the NY Board of Regents published a list of 700 books a truly educated person should read. My mother had read all 700, and was the only person anyone who I've met had ever heard of doing so.

My mother and I didn't fight all that often, but oddly enough, when we did so at some point one of us would end up pulling out the large unabridged dictionary and disputing a word the other used. The best-remembered one was a 45 minute argument about a word (which, even then, I knew wasn't really about the word, but was actually about her feeling insecure not having my Dad in the house anymore). I was coming back inside from measuring the water and electricity meters, and she was trying to shut the door as I was stepping into the door frame, so I pushed back against it to keep from being hit and ended up overpowering her and scaring her. She asked what I had been doing, and told me I was using a word incorrectly--that I meant another word, as what I was using wasn't a word.

That word that I (correctly) used is number 43 on the list. Interpolate. :)

The only other word from this list I have anywhere near as good of a story about is one that was the deciding word in a game of ghost played at a friend's birthday party in high school. His high school friends were treating my best friend and me as idiots because we attended a public school and they were private school kids. My friend whose party it was wasn't a snob, but a number of his high school friends were. One of the few who wasn't had previously met me, and suggested we all play a word game (as he later told me, because he wanted to put them all in their places). The game came down to just two of us--me, and one of the sisters of the birthday boy. I won when I challenged her to come up with a word that started with the string of characters we had going. While she was searching for one, the rest of the group got out a dictionary and found only one word that fit.

That word is also on the list. Number 27: feckless.

Monday, May 14, 2007

List update 070514

Recent list items: #73, #86, #9, #13 (most recent mile: 6:58), #100 (I bought a cookbook), #94.

Thus far, I've completed 13 items, and we're 134 days into the list. Therefore, it turns out that I'm just barely on track. Whoo!

OK, this post has no substance. I'm having a hard time thinking about the moment. I blame the gorgeous weather.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Random annoyance

I am still alive, just massively slackerly on the blog. For much of the past month, I can claim as an excuse the stats class that did its best to eat my life, in which I somehow managed a 4.0 despite not really caring about my grade nor feeling like I had mastered the subject matter. I guess old habits die hard. Every time I've taken a course pass/fail, I've ended up with one of the (if not always the overall) highest grades in the class. This class I wasn't taking pass/fail officially, but in my mental state for the term, a 3.0 was all I cared about. However, I do have an explanation: I only take classes pass/fail when I think they are complex and confusing. And I don't do well at not understanding things, so I tend to freak out and actually put in effort when I don't get what's going on. Therefore, it's not that the pass/fail grading scheme is causal to my doing well, but rather that there's a strong correlation between classes which intimidate me enough to take pass/fail, and courses in which I'll be scared into putting in substantial effort.

As for the random annoyance, I had two negative controls from yesterday's work. Same growth media in the two different types of containers I used. One of them was contaminated today; the other was not. And the one that was contaminated having to be restarted throws off my schedule for about a week, while the other one (had it been contaminated) would have had virtually no impact on my schedule. Grr.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

List progress 070403

I've been meaning to post this for a few days, but I've been lazy. Oh well.

Recent list work: 9, 17, 22, 70 (Forest Gump), 94, 98 (health insurance taken care of), 101.

We're about 100 days into the list, which means I'm supposed to be 1/10 of the way through the list. I've fully completed 11 of my 101 items, so I'm on track. Go me!

A frustrating article

This is an interesting article that would have been far better if they either left off the the gender angle or fully explored it.

As a synopsis, the article is really about the pressures of being an overall overachiever teenager in an affluent suburb. I could insert my own experience here as an overachiever from an affluent suburb, but...this article is made out to be about overachieving teenage girls.

This could be an interesting angle. Anecdotally, it was certainly the case that most of the all-around overachievers in my high school were girls. The male overachievers tended to be very field specific, whereas the female overachievers tended to be broader spectrum. Many of the top male students showed skewed academic strengths, performing much better in, say, math and science than history or foreign language, whereas many of the top female students were more even across the board. More of the top girls were both on sports teams and in musical groups than were the top boys. And a much higher percentage of the honors students were girls than boys. There were exceptions of course--I was actually one of them--but as a general trend this was the way of things in my high school when I was there. Anecdotes are not very reliable, but I'd like to know if this is a generally true trend. An analysis of the different patterns displayed by overachievers of the two sexes would be potentially quite interesting.

As it is, though, this piece is of the sort I find really annoying. It comes very close to an interesting topic, but doesn't actually address it. And that's just frustrating.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fun with school laws in Utah

Recent list work: #9, #12 (completed! Most recent 2 mile run was 15:54), #59, #94.

The weather this past week has been interesting. Last Tuesday it was 73 degrees, and it was uncomfortable wearing long pants. Later in the week we were in the 30s again. Yesterday was warm, bright, and sunny. I woke up this morning with snow on the ground--though it was up in the 50s later on in the day. If this turns into The Day After Tomorrow, I claim dibs on the main character whose father is a climate change researcher.

To prevent this from being a completely meaningless post, I link now to an article I read recently in the NYTimes (warning: link will probably eventually expire). Utah has decided to enact really strict rules about what school clubs are allowed to do, which seem quite clearly to be targeting gay groups. However, these guidelines are a bit crazed. For example:
Under the new Utah law, every club will have to complete an activity disclosure statement that itemizes what it will do, and discusses how many members it will have, and whether tryouts are required. It mandates that any student joining any club needs a parent’s signature — though most public schools in Utah require that already — and specifically bans any discussion by any club of “human sexuality.”

The law defines that term to mean “advocating or engaging in sexual activity outside of legal recognized marriage or forbidden by state law,” and “presenting or discussing information relating to the use of contraceptive devices.”

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that unless there are tryouts, it's extremely unlikely that any club can say how many members they'll have ahead of time. I know I couldn't have done so with regards to the math team, for example, despite being the president of that. This legislation would mean, for instance, that high school chapters of Amnesty International would not be able to protest compulsory intrauterine devices as a form of population control. I'm thinking the religious right who are backing this legislation won't really like that outcome. This ends up being an example of the dangers of trying to censor speech you don't like--that which you do gets thrown out as well.

Friday, March 16, 2007

List update 070316

Recent list work: #9, #12 (last week's time: 16:12), #22, #69 (boy I dislike Catch 22), #94, #95.

The facial hair experiment is over. It seemed to have worked out pretty much as well as it could. I did feel I looked silly, the main friend who thought I'd look better with facial hair agreed with me that I didn't, and yet I didn't look as silly with it as I thought I would and I did receive some compliments on it. But it's gone now, and my that feels better. Here's the before and after:

Note the complete lack of photography skills inherent in this. I probably could have used the timer function on the camera, but that would have involved finding someplace to rest the camera, and really, I just wanted the dang facial hair gone as soon as I could. To the amusement of all, that represented 2 weeks of facial hair growth. My brother gets to that level of beardedness in 3 days.

Another blow to individualism

Things like this really annoy me, and not entirely for the reasons you might think.

Basically, Hamilton college (a fairly good small school in upstate NY--I actually know people who went there) has decided to end all merit-based aid and divert this money toward need-based aid. It's not surprising that I would object to this, but the reasons are a bit more complicated than they might appear.

Yes, I will admit, I did get merit-based aid as an undergraduate, to the tune of my entire tuition. And I've been on merit-based fellowships at graduate schools since then. I'm sure that's had some impact on my views on this matter. But there are other concerns which I think are more relevant--though it's possible I'm kidding myself:

1) I was raised with the belief that college is the expense of the person attending, not his or her family. (S)He is the one attending the school, gaining the advantages of the successes, dealing with the consequences of the failures, picking the courses to study and the school to attend, and responsible for the bill. Turning everything into need-based aid screws over the kids of well-off parents who don't approve of their child's decision to go to college at all, who don't like the choice of school, who don't like the choice of study program, etc. It ends up causing massive differences in the level of control over a student's life that the parents or guardians have, based solely on the economics of the family. The children of wealth only have wealth themselves if their parents choose to bestow it on them. On their own, there's very little difference in the economic power of most 18-year-olds.

2) This eliminates one of the great routes of self-reliance for college students. One of the things I love about a meritocracy is that it allows people through their own effort to alter the outcomes of their lives. Getting rid of merit-based aid, and funneling all that money into need-based aid means that students will be rewarded or punished for who their parents are, not what they themselves have accomplished.

3) I don't really like the idea of charging different prices for the same thing to different people based upon their financial situation. If I want the good pizza deal at the local pizzeria, it's $7.94 for 2 small 2-topping pizzas and a 2-liter of pop of my choice. It would be the same if I won the lottery last week, and it would be the same next week if I lost my job. There are some differential price points which make rational sense to me--frequent customer discounts to lure people into being habitual shoppers, senior and student discounts to target groups which often have limited personal budgets but nevertheless account for a large amount of the revenue of certain industries like movie theaters, lower costs for advanced purchases locking in usage rising as the event gets closer followed by a massive price reduction immediately before the event to fill the leftover seats and eke out what profit you can, and even different interest rates based upon risk of lending to a given individual--but I don't like this sort of one. It's economically valid, as it helps more accurately match supply to demand, but this ends up functioning as a tax levied by entities which are not elected to determine tax structures.

Now, I recognize that part of that last argument could be applied to merit scholarships as well--different students are paying different amounts to attend the same institution. Here, though, I argue that it's a bit different. For one, simply put, the merit scholarship students are contributing more to the university in arenas other than present dollars than the other students are. By raising the academic profile of the school, they are increasing its prestige, its ability to attract grants and donations, and to hire faculty members of its choice. More often than not--if the scholarships are distributed properly--they end up being the ones who excel in classes, and as a result either raise the level of discussion or end up effectively tutoring their friends who are struggling in those classes. And when those overachievers graduate, they're more likely to go on to careers in which their accomplishments reflect favorably on the school, and are likely to be alumni donors themselves.

I was lucky. My family decided to cover the educational costs of both my brother and me beyond what our scholarships provided, despite having told us for basically our entire lives that college was our cost. And they didn't try to control what we studied or where we did so. But they very easily could have chosen not to do this. And if that had happened, I probably would be in more debt than several of my former roommates, despite the fact that I had a full-tuition merit scholarship and none of them were on any merit aid. If you then remove the merit aid entirely, well, I certainly would not have gone to the college I did, and probably wouldn't have gone to as good of one in general. Two recent alumni from the same school shouldn't be facing debt differences of tens of thousands of dollars (or, in some cases, more than $100,000) when the difference in reason is how much money their parents make.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Today's bit of random adorableness

This has virtually no real news value, but it's shockingly cute. A pair of orang twins and a set of tiger cubs have apparently become playmates in a zoo nursery after having been abandoned by their respective mothers. Officials say they have not yet observed a single act of hostility, and after playing together, the animals tend to sleep cuddling against each other. There's even video to go along with the pictures. The tigers are a month old; the orangs are 5 months. There's undoubtedly a time limit on this friendship--it's noted that tiger cubs begin eating meat at the age of 3 months, so I imagine this will cause aggression as they try out their teeth. (In such a battle, I'd probably give the upper hand to the orangs, who will be 7 months old; since the orangs can already brachiate, I figure their grip strength is sufficient to defend themselves.) But, in the meantime: awww.

In an effort to make this at least slightly intellectual, it's interesting to note the primate/feline bonding. As of 2002 (the latest data source I can find), there were ~69 million cats and ~62 million dogs being kept as pets in the US (ref), putting cats as the most common pet in this country (more households have dogs, but cat owners typically have more cats than dog owners have dogs). And there is the famous case of Koko the gorilla who likes cats. This now reaches across broader phylogenetic ranges, both because orangs are less closely related to humans than are gorillas, and because tigers are, well, not domesticated cats. I could try to spin some evolutionary psychology reasoning for this, but most ev psych seems rather fluffy to me. Most likely, it's simply that animals with high degrees of parental care (notably mammals and birds) have evolved offspring which trigger a nurturing response in their parents. We probably find baby mammals cuter than we find baby birds because we share far more brain structures in common with other mammals (because we're also mammals) than we do with birds, and thus a given visual stimulus that will elicit nurturing in other mammals is more likely to trigger such a response in us as well. But, whatever the reason, it's still cute.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

List update 070227

Recent list work: #9, #12a (most recent time: 16:42), #22, #87.

I've realized a few of my items are debatable. For instance, I did drive an hour to spend time with a friend. Does that qualify as traveling to visit someone? I'm currently going with no. The reestablishing good credit history is always potential, but I've not gotten a credit report recently, so it's not yet clear that's been completed. And I'm definitely working on finishing up with classes, but that will take a while.

However, of items which are unequivocal, I've currently finished 6. This means I'm completely on pace, as I need to average 1 every 10 days. And I've even done it without relying on the sunrise and sunset ones yet. Yay me!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Musings and list update

Recent list efforts: #9, #12a (most recent time-- 16:56), #87, #94.

So, today after my workout there was a bit of a commotion in the locker room. A guy I will say was obviously substantially disabled apparently wanted to go swimming, and was banging against the locked door to it. His aide (aide? attendant? I don't know the correct term) was repeating firmly and calmly "The door is locked. I don't have a key. We can't get in. Let's go sit down by your locker. The door is locked." The guy who caused the commotion continued to bang against the door, moan, and occasionally say the word "key". When he did, he just repeated it continuously.

I checked on my way out, and it turns out that this was not a time in which the pool was listed as being open to the public. Therefore, I can come up with two scenarios: 1) He wasn't aware that this was not a time when the pool was normally open. 2) The pool is normally open to him at this time, but for some reason was locked today.

I'm not sure what to think of my thoughts on this--if that isn't too dadaist of me to say. Pragmatically, I think it makes good sense to have a time for the pool to be reserved for those with severe disabilities. From my selfish perspective, behavior like this guy's is some stressful to be around. I wasn't angry at him about it, as it seemed clear to me that he's not of a mental capacity to know any better, but it's along the lines of a screaming infant on an airplane--loud and stressful. I can try to justify it by saying that it might be less stressful for the severely disabled to exercise together as well, as they'd be less likely to be ridiculed for being themselves in such a setting, but I can't be sure that it's all that altruistic of me. On the other hand, I wonder about what this says about my levels of compassion, and whether I'm advocating for sweeping people like him under the rug.

I think this is also all somewhat complicated by the fact that my gym is a university gym. From the language skills on display, I would be very surprised if this guy was a student here. Is it reasonable that I take that into consideration? I can only guess that he might be the child of a university employee, and this is why he uses this gym, but I view the dependents of the faculty/staff/students to have a lesser claim on the facilities than the faculty/staff/students themselves.

Can we get an apology here?

Today's NY TImes contains an update on Matthew LaClair. For those who don't know who he is, he's (at the time of this writing) a high school student who earlier this year caused a surprising amount of controversy by, well, conclusively demonstrating that his world history teacher was behaving entirely inappropriately for a public high school teacher. Matthew's tape recordings involve such things as the teacher -- remember, he's a history teacher -- telling students during class that if they don't believe that Jesus died for their sins that they deserve to go to Hell, that there were dinosaurs on Noah's ark, evolution has no scientific basis, etc. There's been a strong backlash against him in his community; several have said that he was provoking these points, that he's just seeking attention, that it was wrong to tape these lectures without approval, even that these statements were no big deal.

So far, the school's response which has been publicly known has ban taping classes without instructor approval. We must take their word for it that there was some sort of discussion with the teacher to prevent him from doing this again, as it falls under the umbrella of "personnel matter".

Well, today's update is that his family has filed a torts claim notice, which is the first step to filing a lawsuit in New Jersey. The family says they're seeking a public apology and a correction of some of the statements made in class.

This strikes me as a strange thing to sue over. I do feel the school's actions are inappropriate. And though without knowing the situation in detail, I have a hard time coming up with any context in which these statements could be reasonably made in a public school history class. If this behavior was still going on, and he was suing to stop it, I'd find that laudable. But suing for an apology still strikes me as a bit wrong. Our courts are overbooked as it is dealing with matters of people breaking the law. Dealing with people's feelings being hurt in ways that aren't slander or libel strikes me as too much to add.

A snapshot of American values

Brendan links to an interesting article today about what people think of hypothetical presidential candidates.

I'm sure that people are going to interpret this as a sign of what prejudices exist in this country. I don't think that's quite accurate. A better idea would be to interpret this as what prejudices people think are socially acceptable. For example, I'm not convinced that across the country as a whole, it's considered 10 times worse to be an atheist than it is to be black (5% say they wouldn't vote for a black candidate--53% say they wouldn't vote for an atheist one.) Like all self-report data, it's important to remember that what people say on a survey is not necessarily what they truly think/feel/do.

This list also, of course, confirms that I shouldn't run for office anytime soon. So at least that's resolved. ;) But it's probably better for me to run in 20 years than it would be if I waited 50 and was therefore old...

Monday, February 12, 2007

The study of the paranormal

Furthering today's theme of posting about science (sort of), another piece from the NYTimes this weekend concerned the fate of a Princeton lab which has, for decades, attempted to study psychic abilities. Basically, the worker in this lab tried to see if human thoughts could alter what would otherwise be random events--random number generation, physical movements, etc.

In what will probably surprise anyone who met me in college or later, I at one time assumed I'd take a course in parapsychology. I've always believed that most people claiming psychic powers were frauds, but I figured there might be some legitimate basis to telepathy in particular. Just because I thought most of those claiming the abilities were frauds didn't mean I was convinced the abilities didn't exist.

In reality, I think most of the research from this lab is suspect. As Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things, you should generally be skeptical of things which purport to show only very tiny effect sizes. And the effect sizes claimed by this lab are indeed tiny. "Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000." When effect sizes are that small, they're extremely unlikely to be meaningful.

But, at the same time, I'm annoyed by things like "Prominent research journals declined to accept papers from PEAR. One editor famously told Dr. Jahn that he would consider a paper “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.”" How annoyed I am depends on how you interpret it. If it's a statement that the papers were rejected outright because of who it was submitting them, without looking at the evidence, that's a bad thing. If it's that the papers were declined because the editors didn't think the authors had proved their claims, that's something else.

However, it should be pointed out, it's not fair to sit back and blithely condemn journals for not considering all submissions. Journals are deluged with huge numbers of manuscripts. It takes time, energy, and expense to review them thoroughly. It is therefore reasonable for many journals to conduct a form of academic triage--only thoroughly review those papers which are unlikely to have serious logical or methodological flaws and which claim interesting results in the abstract. Still, there are so many journals out there that it seems unlikely that the lab simply couldn't find a journal willing to give a thorough review to their submissions, and that's why they had to found there own. Color me skeptical when a group publishes only in a journal run by the members of the group.

Litmus ideology and science

I came across an interesting article in the NYTimes today. In summary, it's about a man who got a PhD in geoscience, writing a dissertation about the spread of mosasaurs, which went extinct 65 million years ago. The man also happens to be a young Earth creationist, believing that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and was created according to accounting in Genesis.

I have a few reactions to this article, which are probably not well organized at the moment, but which I feel like writing about right now anyway.

One, I find it absurd that people feel he shouldn't have gotten the degree simply because he doesn't completely believe it. (For example: "His creationism aroused “some concern by faculty members there, and disagreements,” he recalled, and there were those who argued that his religious beliefs should bar him from earning an advanced degree in paleontology.") If his work is a valid contribution to the field, then whether he disagrees with his own work due to religious reasons is irrelevant. Universities should not be in the job of making students pass an ideological litmus test. Educating about the science of evolution is not brainwashing. As long as the students understand the arguments and predictions therein, that's all that the university can really demand that they know of a given theory. Greater demands can be placed on the details of how their dissertation intersects with a theory, but disputing a theory is not sufficient cause to refuse a degree.

At the same time, I do draw a distinction between that and another related topic brought up in another paragraph:

Michael L. Dini, a professor of biology education at Texas Tech University, goes even further. In 2003, he was threatened with a federal investigation when students complained that he would not write letters of recommendation for graduate study for anyone who would not offer “a scientific answer” to questions about how the human species originated.

What sort of federal investigation would be at all reasonable? Letters of recommendation are personal, subjective evaluations of students. Any professor can hold any standard (s)he wants to write such a letter. If one of my professors felt that I'd be unqualified for graduate work because I'm a white male and there are too many of those in grad school already, that's his/her right. I may disagree, but I have no federal right to a letter of recommendation.

On the other hand, I do find at least one of the statements attributed to this man to be dishonest. ("And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”") Bull. It's in your dissertation thesis. If you don't refute it there, or at the very least clearly distance yourself from it by saying things like "Smith et al argue that these fossils are from..." or "One interpretation is that...", you are indeed implying endorsement of the statement.

I know that, long-term, I will have students in my evolution courses who disagree with evolution. For the most part, I must admit that I believe this is caused by some combination of misinformation about the reality of the biological arguments about evolution and a certain degree of doublethink on the part of the students. But it's not my place to dictate what they believe. My job is to teach the information and evaluate their understanding of it and ability to apply it. If they can do that but choose not to believe it--because they have alternate beliefs, or put less faith in scientific methodology than they do in appeals to other authorities, that in no way makes them less deserving of the mark they've earned.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The state of equality

The latest news from the culture wars isn't a good one for either equality or freedom, really. Today, the Michigan State Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that public universities and governmental agencies may not provide domestic partnership benefits to their employees, in response to the 2004 MI state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and outlaws recognition of any "similar union for any purpose".

Now, I must admit that I'm unhappy with that amendment. I think it's wrong and contrary to common sense and the real spirit of equality. I do, however, at least respect those who felt strongly enough about it to amend the state constitution, rather than trying to pass a law stating that certain laws aren't subject to the constitution. Process does matter to me.

However, this is taking things to an extreme version. Note that the ruling is that public organizations aren't allowed to offer such benefits, not that they aren't required to do so. Further, as is quoted from the article:
Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk previously had ruled that criteria established by employers to qualify for same-sex benefits don't recognize a "union" because Michigan doesn't allow civil unions.

"Employer-defined criteria for the receipt of health care benefits cannot create a union where one does not exist," Draganchuk said.

In any event, this is going to cause some problems down the road for the large public universities in Michigan. Academia in general is a relatively liberal environment, and many institutions advertise their domestic partnership benefits accordingly. I know that, for example, my health insurance would be extendable to a domestic partner I registered with the university. Or, at least, it would have been prior to this ruling (and, of course, if I had a domestic partner, which I don't).

For the moment, let's leave aside the issue of how preventing homosexual unions in any way protects straight marriage. This is just a bad idea. Institutions of higher education are being prohibited from offering benefits they have already been offering to entice the students and faculty members they're seeking. For a state trying to transition from a manufacturing economy and in which the universities best known across the country are public ones, this is an idiotic move. There will be savings in the short term, as less money will be spent on offering health care. But the costs, should this ruling stand, will add up massively over the long-haul as the universities slip in their prestige.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reports of my death have been mildly exaggerated

Recent work on list: 9 (not sure how many are relevant at the moment), 12 (15 inches and counting), 20, 22, 67, 69, 94.

As is not terribly surprising, I've gotten bad about updating this thing, in the midst of my general unproductive laziness. This term's class structure basically prevents me from getting the sort of research done that I normally do, so I'm just working on things like an article I'm supposed to be writing--and thus I feel bad not knowing how far along I am on item number 9. However, it's now been a month. To stay on track to get this list completed on time, I need to average 1 item completed every 10 days. It's been just over 30 days, and I've made 4 of them (and, arguably more--last racquetball match against my instructing friend was 15-14, 15-14, 15-11, for example. So I could claim that I've learned to play racquetball, despite wanting to hold off until I beat him). I haven't even resorted to the really simple ones yet. I'd make some comment about which ones those are, but I do plan to build my snowman soon. Possibly even in the next few days.

Anyway, I'd post something actually thoughtful, but that would require too much effort at the moment. I just needed to post something so that I didn't let it go yet another day without doing so.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Dream

This is a long weekend for me (in the sense that I don't have class tomorrow), because of the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. As such, and particularly because I'm in this year's Michigan, this provokes definite thoughts about race.

This November, Michigan passed its controversial Proposition 2. For those unfamiliar with it, the exact wording of the initiative was as follows:
A proposal to amend the state constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education, or contracting purposes.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

Bad public institutions from using affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes. Public institutions affected by the proposal include state government, local governments, public colleges and universities, community colleges and school districts.

Prohibit public institutions from discriminating against groups or individuals due to their gender, ethnicity, race, color, or national origin. (A separate provision of the state constitutions already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.)

This passed by a 58-42 margin, and is thus currently the law of the land in Michigan. needless to say, my university is not terribly pleased about this. MSU did manage to avoid having to immediately comply with all aspects of this, in that they may continue to use the same admission policy for the rest of this admission cycle that they were using back in October - in my view, that's only fair. And though I should find a link for it, I read in the past few weeks that this apparently doesn't completely control hiring practices here, as we receive federal money, and the EEOC requires affirmative action for all institutions receiving federal monies.

Much to the chagrin of my more liberal friends, though, I'm glad this law passed. And it astounds me that so many people claiming to be following the teachings of MLK are angered by this. A quick look at Merriam-Webster defines racism as: "1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination" So, in other words, it's boiling people down to primarily their skin tone, and treating them according to that. Since affirmative action is a policy whereby historically underrepresented groups are given preferential treatment in admission and enrollment practices, I can't see how such a program is not, inherently, racist. That strikes me as completely antithetical to King's speech of his dream that one day, all would be treated not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

It would be easy to dismiss this as me simply advocating a policy that favors me. All of the ancestry I know of is white (assuming, of course, that you count Irish as white--it wasn't that long ago that it wasn't). The most probably ancestry for me to have which I don't actually know of is Jewish (there's likely a reason that roughly half the people I meet think I'm Jewish), but that's not a group that's historically underrepresented in education or the high paying jobs which come with that, so it wouldn't help me at all. But it should be noted, also, that I'm planning a career in academia. Even though I'm in science, most of my classmates are girls, and while I'm in one of the whitest areas of science, the numbers of students of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and other Asian ancestry are growing all the time. But these groups are not proliferating due to affirmative action policies. They're proliferating because (in very broad patterns, not necessarily at the level of specific individuals), they come from families which hold education in high esteem, they applied themselves in their classes, and they aren't primarily seeking financial rewards for their abilities.

To me, two wrongs don't make a right. To the extent that there are still discriminatory practices in admission and employment due to race, sex, ethnic background and whatnot, those are wrong, and should be eliminated. But you don't get rid of discrimination by institutionalizing another form of discrimination. It shouldn't matter if my competitors for a position, a fellowship, or whatever are black, white, yellow, polka dotted, men, women, or hermaphrodites. I should get the position if I'm the most qualified, and the most capable of doing the job. If I'm not, I shouldn't, regardless of whether the organization has fewer skinny dark-haired white guys than you'd expect based on demographics.

Those people who are advocating the continuation of affirmative action policies for reasons such as the idea benefits of increased diversity outweigh the costs of the programs have a point to argue. But they need to stop saying that it's about equality. Holding people to different standards because of their skin tone or reproductive organs or whatnot is not equality. It's discrimination. And if you want to discriminate, you need to be able to justify that form of discrimination, rather than try to claim that you're not discriminating.

List update 070113

Items worked on: 14, 15, 20, 69, 79

I have other things to talk about besides this list, but they're less time critical. Not that I have basically any readers at the moment, but I don't want to lose track of accomplishments.

Racquetball continues to come along. The most recent loss was 15-9, 15-11. So I'm not far from being at a reasonable level. This was on Thursday night, followed immediately by a few hours of pick-up volleyball. I like the general level of play there, so I think that's going to become a regular Thursday night activity for me. We'll just have to convince some of the other players of minor things like...set the ball when you have the second hit.

Today I dealt with the long-distance run. You know, I had never viscerally understood the concept of the runner's high. I was told that this is because I hadn't run far enough, and that it kicks in around 3-4 miles into it. Today, I ran 5 miles. And you know what? The runner's high is bunk. That 5th mile was really painful, and it hurt even more when I stopped. But I got it done in under 50 minutes, so I never have to do it again. I took a really long hot shower afterwards, and my calves started to relax, but they've become more seized since then. I may try a hot bath before bed--I'm really hoping I don't end up crippled for a few days. Well, really, I'm hoping I don't end up crippled at all, not just that it's delayed.

Number 79 got taken care of with Ugly Betty. I've met America before, and someone told me that one of the minor characters reminds him of me, so I decided to watch it. And I definitely see the resemblance, so I have a new celebrity as the "famous person I most resemble". Plus, the show is pretty funny, despite my completely not caring about fashion. I think it's fun watching people act like the fate of the world depends on something which is fundamentally unimportant.

Anyway, that's it for the lsit update at the moment. I'll try to write non-list-related things tomorrow.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

List update 070107

Items worked on today: 15, 20.

Today's racquetball went a bit better. 15-6, 15-4, 15-14, 15-8. I'm still not swinging enough from my elbow and wrist, and I'm having a hard time letting the ball get past me, but I have at least pretty much stopped trying to clear an imaginary net. I'm getting a bit better about not trying lob shots, but I still do every once in a while. I think once I can beat someone who knows how to play, I'll consider myself to have learned how to play racquetball.

And, today in amusement, I saw a commercial for a home pregnancy test stating that it is "easily the most advanced piece of technology you'll ever pee on." That did, admittedly, make me laugh aloud, but as I'm very unlikely to ever take a home pregnancy test, I figure it's more likely that the most advanced piece of technology I'll ever pee on will be an advanced toilet. Particularly if I ever visit Japan.