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.