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.