Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gripes about the housing process so far...

The most talked-about part of the offer my graduate school sent me was the graduate housing guarantee. Having read it, and gone on to read the most recent internal committee report on the housing guarantee, and then read the rates quoted on the website, I thought that this meant that I would have some variety of affordable housing. Barely affordable, but affordable.

What I didn't read was the noise-filled, flash-intensive website of a private subcontractor, who runs the other graduate housing units, the ones that the university doesn't actually own. The rent is much higher in these privately-run "luxury apartments."

Seriously? You're going to use the word "luxury" in describing graduate student housing? Someone's priorities are messed up. If I had gone on to read those rates, and realized that my school was going to put me in one of the expensive apartments, and that they would be asking for two rent payements prior to even moving in... well, the  offer would have looked a lot less attractive.

The margin for housing to be considered "affordable" is 30-35% of income. By that standard, in order for the cheapest rent in the housing run by the private subcontractor to be considered even marginally affordable by Federal terms (35% of income spent on rent), you need an income of $26,000. Which is more than they pay graduate students. And to afford a single? Over $40K. This is enormously different from the units the university actually runs themselves.

And may I go back to the front-loading, and the silly fees? Application fee of $20. Security deposit of $150. $12.95 extra for them to process a credit card payment through a fourth party (how many middlemen are taking a cut?) and the first two months' rent due August 1st and September 1st when the move-in date is September 19th. Graduate student orientation? Guess. It's the 17th, and if you want to move in early, you get charged extra.

If I had known all of this earlier, I might have decided that thal school's financial support was simply unworkable. As is, now, I will find a way to manage to make ends meet, but you can bet I'm not happy about it. The fees are the most ridiculous part. I'm paying an 8.6% fee to reduce your paperwork? Even Paypal does not charge so much - and taking it out on the payee?

Perhaps in California, students are accustomed to going neck-deep in debt to afford housing, and it's considered essential to have a "resort-style" swimming pool at your apartment complex, etc. But where I come from, graduate students aren't interested in paying an extra $300-$500 per month to live in more luxurious digs. They're interested in having enough left over for groceries and just maybe putting something aside to work on those student loans they accumulated as an undergrad.

I know, I know, this is how the subcontractors make a mint and get their boat payments. But you'd think if the university was aware that problems affording housing both drive away prospective graduate students and prevent existing graduate students from making it through the program in a timely fashion (or at all, in some cases), they'd try to make sure the housing they were offering was affordable. And they are aware. I read the survey results cited in that report.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Legal, regulated, taxed?

Today, for a change of pace, I've decided I'm going to try to think of a list of things that I think can be questioned on moral grounds, or on the grounds of their social cost, but should be legal - since making them illegal causes more problems - but carefully regulated, and that are worth taxing to recover the full social cost of the enterprise.
  • Tobacco
  • Meat
  • Alcohol
  • Driving
  • Firearms
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Hunting
  • Sharp pointy things
  • Marijuana
  • Prostitution
This list is sorted by approximate increase in mortality caused by allowing them in the US, so far as I could tell. Prostitution is at the bottom, because as best as I could tell from the comparative statistics and studies, legalizing prostitution seems to actually reduce prostitution-related mortality. Curiously, it's the least lethal two at the bottom that are most often illegal in this country.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Fat and sexuality and society

Consider this an idle rumination, if you would.

Not terribly long ago, a study came to my attention. It noted that among women, lesbians tended to be heavier than bisexuals who in turn tended to be heavier than straight women. This was curious to me, as also, I have seen many studies over the years that seemed to indicate that straight women seem to care more about a partner's body fat percentage than straight men did, and anecdotally, it seems to me that gay men appear to care the very most about it.

Lo and behold, Google provides a study suggesting that yes, gay men worry more about weight than straight men. And I am tempted to say there are two factors - being male, and being interested in males - that both somehow become a driving force, and if straight women care more about body fat than straight men, then being interested in men would be the stronger fashion.

Nevertheless, it strikes me as very odd, and it would bother me very much more if I thought this phenomenon was more biological than social.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Ecolitan Lesson

Some books teach you things. At times, I wonder if I am drawing the right lessons from the novels I peruse; in L.E. Modesitt's Ecolitan books, the lesson seems a fairly pointed one, so I feel nearly sure that the point is what I think it is:

Know what your priorities are. In the Ecolitan books, the protagonist always has some goal in mind - preserving a way of life, breaking an Empire, something monumental. The protagonist stops at nearly nothing to achieve this - and because they know exactly what their priorities are, it is the thought of a single moment to determine which priorities an action works for or against.

Most of the protagonists are highly pragmatic, and the results are bloody - but in the end, the trade-offs they have made, they are satisfied with. I think there's at least a grain of truth to that, and a grain of danger. People who put a single goal above all else risk becoming monsters in pursuit of that goal - whether the goal is destroying a nation, overturning a law, or accumulating wealth. The truth, though, is that most of the regrets I've had, and the mistakes I've made - or watched others make - are related to not knowing exactly what priorities fall where.

It's a simple lesson, but a difficult creed, and I'm still not sure if the danger in taking an ordering of priorities to heart is more or less than its utility.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The curious problem of insoluble union

My mixed feelings on secession

When I look back on the civil war we had here in the US, I am of two minds. The first thing that comes to my mind is thank goodness they ended slavery. Sure, without the Civil War, perhaps slavery would have died out on its own eventually. Apartheid in South Africa ended eventually, without a bloody civil war... but it seemed to take forever.

A million people dying in a bloody civil war? Worth it to see the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments passed and enforced right then and there. But declaring the Union insoluble? A little fuzzier. It's been something of a help in protecting civil rights, as the US Supreme Court was what led the way to ending segregation and legalized racial discrimination.

But in theory? I don't think our union should be insoluble, and I think it was a grave oversight not to establish appropriate terms and procedures for states to leave the US. You don't want it to be something too quick and easy, something that can be decided upon rashly by a thin plurality of the population in a single referendum when emotions are running high, and it would probably take a year or more just to sort out state and federal properties and debts and carry out the actual separation once you were absolutely sure you wanted to do it.

In this day and age, I don't see it being a good idea, for Texas or any other state, but the idea that the United States can only add, and never even theoretically remove, states strikes me as non-viable. Eternal union may sound nice, but eternity is a very long time - and that's what bothers me about the Civil War. For all the good it did in removing slavery, it's made it very difficult to talk critically about perpetual union.

We've seen time and time again in other countries that there comes a time when it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that tie them to another, and why can't it be peaceful more often? The dissolution of Czechoslovakia, for example, was carried out quite peacefully.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Metrics by which we might define the closeness of an election

There's always a great deal of talk about how close an election is. To myself, this can mean several different things, as I touched upon in my earlier discussion of the 2000 US presidential election.

An election can be considered close in several senses. First, that the final tallies are close. Second, that a small number of voters could have changed the result. Third, that alternative methods of tallying the election would have altered the election result.

The 2000 example is a good one because the final tally was close (271 to 266), the number of voters needed to change the election result was small (a few hundred out of a hundred million), and a change in election procedure would have likely resulted in a change in the result, e.g., going by popular margin instead of electoral votes, counting one or more states via a non-plurality method, et cetera.

Even very small alterations in the electoral vote mechanics, such as proportional allocation in some states that do not currently split electors, or the number of electors allocated, i.e., the size of the US House, could have altered the 2000 election.

The 2004 election was also a close election - but only in the sense that had a little over 50,000 votes been changed from Bush to Kerry in that state. Given that Bush enjoyed majority support, his position in 2004 was much more secure against alterations in the electoral mechanics, such as shifting to a national popular vote.

While some have charged the 2004 election was stolen, the amount of alteration that such charges must allege in order to secure Kerry's victory against, say, a national plurality vote - is truly staggering. It would take a total of around 1.5 million ballots altered or 3 million added (or subtracted) ballots to account for such a change.

And it is in discussing such metrics that the weakness of the electoral college comes out. The electoral college has most of the pros and cons of the plurality system it is based on - except that it is much more strongly vulnerable to local shifts, whether how easy it is for a third party candidate to make it onto the ballot, voter suppression or fraud, or - in the case of the 2000 election - simple counting error to shift the overall result. Electoral votes are necessarily going to be closer than national popular votes by the metric of how many voters need to change their mind to change the election.

For example, the 2008 election was not considered a particularly close one. Barack Obama's total plurality vote margin was 7.2%, and the electoral vote margin 365-173. Yet to change the result of the total election, it suffices to barely flip North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Iowa - which he won by a total of 987,000 votes, 0.75%. The 2004 election could have been changed with 0.097% of the votes, in spite of a 1.5% popular margin.

I'm of the opinion a comprehensive listing (e.g., Bush/Dukakis would have required 1.23% of votes to be added/subtracted, or 0.62% changed) would give a good idea as to the typical quantitative relationship between how sensitive a national plurality vote is, as opposed to an electoral college ballot.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The curious case of male sexuality and religion

Before I talk about any empirical evidence, indulge me in an anecdote, would you?

For about four years of my college career, I belonged to an all-male pop a capella group by the name of Higher Ground. Beyond any doubt, what held the group together was music, but I was always a bit of an odd duck. When I first joined the group, the core of it was from nearby Hickory, and most of the guys were fans of country music. Mainly country boys, but by the time I left, the founding old guard had all gone, and it had shifted from that to the more generic brand, the kind of fella who thinks about joining a fraternity.

Pigeonhole and stereotype away if you like. There were some interesting characters, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't, but the end result is that Higher Ground was the most "conservative" group I belonged to on campus, and also one of the more religious, at least nominally, and I learned a few interesting things.

One was that Campus Crusade for Christ meetings were apparently one of the best places to score. That was a surprise to me; less surprising was the constant locker-room talk. A very few were genuinely intensely religious, more interested in theology, and those few were willing to put sex aside until marriage. The rest? Conservative or not, religious or not, college was all about getting laid. Expressly and explicitly.

And it's from that experience, and the experience of liberal students who were very cautious about sex, that I started to wonder what exactly is going on here. There's no question in my mind that being told not to have sex until marriage over and over again should reduce sexual activity, but why is it that only some men (far fewer than women, it seems, and now I've gone and introduced empirical evidence) respond to this message, while others come out of the Southern Baptist church thinking that sex before marriage is sinful yet pursuing promiscuity as if it were the path into heaven?

Some of it surely is the traditional myth of hyperactive male sexuality, propagated in some abstinence-only programs and passed on unthinkingly by those who do not critically examine sexuality; but I cannot help but think that something else is involved. And what stands out is that in this day and age, more than ever, conservative young males fear being labeled as homosexual - and nothing is as effective at silencing locker-room backstabbers' quiet implications of homosexuality than having sex with a woman.

So now, whenever people jabber about men being unable to control their desires, I think about homophobia, and how it helps keep alive the idea that sex is some commodity that men demand and women supply.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

One kilogram does not equal 2.2 pounds

How you react to this statement tells me something, I think. If you've taken physics, you know that pounds are a unit of force, while kilograms are a unit of mass, and therefore, 2.2 pounds does not equal 1 kilogram. 1 kilogram of matter, on Earth, weighs 2.2 pounds (give or take a few small fractions; Earth's gravity field isn't quite uniform); on the moon, the same object will still mass one kilogram, while it will weigh only a few ounces.

So it's quite technically correct to say 1 kilogram doesn't equal 2.2 pounds. On the other hand, for all practical intents and purposes, that's the useful conversion to make, since the newton (metric unit of force) and the slug (standard imperial unit of mass) are more rarely used units.

Some people react with a nod. They're aware of the difference, and consider it an important one. Others react with a groan - they know that technically it's correct, but as far as they're concerned, the difference is a technical distinction that doesn't really matter. And a few become quite confused, because they don't know what the distinction is between weight and mass.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Patterns from nothing

Today is the day several people I know have a birthday. Five, according to Facebook, which informs me that I knew four of those in high school, no less - what a remarkable coincidence! - and two of them were reasonably good friends with each other, enough to share a five-way birthday party with several other nearby May-birthday friends.

Yet while it's quite unusual to have to have a couple of close friends from the same circle with a May 23rd birthday, it's hardly unusual to have two friends share the same birthday. By the time you know 23 birthdays, the odds are better than even that you know two people with shared birthdays. A remarkable coincidence - but of course, you're special, and you probably had to go through around 250 friends to find one who shared YOUR birthday.

We are inclined to recognize patterns in life. It's a useful skill, one that serves us well every day of our lives, but we're not always good judges of statistical significance, so sometimes we recognize patterns that are in fact simply random noise. This is where superstitions come from, and those little errant beliefs that aren't quite rational. Rationally, I know that having an ice-cold draft from the bar won't improve my motor control, but I swear, it seems to improve my bowling from atrocious to merely terrible!

Once we've picked out a pattern, and consciously identified it, we start to become emotionally attached to them. We've invested time and effort in it; every time you wear your lucky underpants and make out with a cute boy, you've reinforced the idea that they're lucky in your mind. When you wear them out and go home frustrated, you focus on another cause - a black cat, maybe a friend causing drama, there was something out there that interfered with your lucky underwear.

Psychologists have found intermittent reinforcement works very well, which might explain not only gambling addictions, but how doggedly we hang onto our curious patterns; medical doctors have found that delusion is remarkably effective at influencing how our bodies work. And there, we've come full circle. Most of the false patterns we see in life don't cause us much harm, and some even help us cope with the varied vagaries of life.

And who knows? Maybe a beer does relax me enough to let my cerebellum handle everything; maybe I treat my friend Terry like a little sister because I share a birthday with her big brother; and maybe, just maybe, your lucky sock makes you run just a little bit faster. But if you look hard enough for a pattern, one will emerge; whether it means anything or not is another matter entirely.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Still grumbling about the 2000 election

It's been eight years, and still, the 2000 election bothers me. It displayed most of the things wrong with our electoral system here in the US, and several measures of gross injustice to boot.

First, it shows the problems with the electoral college: That voters matter more or less, nationally, depending on which state they live in; a small margin of voters in a single state can decide the entire election. Also, that with certain states "in play," and a winner-takes-all rule, there's a much larger payoff for fraud. The incentive to cheat in states that poll closely is entirely too high for comfort.

Second, it showcases one of the major problems with a simple plurality vote. Even retaining the anachronistic Electoral College, which makes large states disproportionately important to win, had the election in Florida - or New Hampshire - been carried out using nearly any of the other voting systems, whether Borda count, approval ballot, or instant runoff, Gore would've been accorded a decisive, if narrow, victory.

Third, the close investigation into Florida demonstrated the impact of poor ballot design and voter suppression, both of which, in this particular case, favored Bush over Gore, and either of which accounted for more votes than the final official margin. The final study showed that had the state of Florida counted all its votes correctly and consistently with the law, Gore won by a razor-thin margin in spite of both factors. If you don't remember reading about that in the news, it was buried deeply in the back, since the study wasn't completed until shortly after 9/11, when Bush was enjoying record popularity. It was also very heavily spun in the news media, which emphasized instead the fact that Gore's initial few-counties recount strategy was a bad one.

Fourth, it showed politics at its worst, with each politician acting tactically and hypocritically. Bush swore up and down that this was an issue for the state of Florida to decide - right up until the Florida Supreme Court decided against him, at which point he went running to the US Supreme Court. Gore tried to get a recount in only the most heavily Democratic counties. The election officials in Florida, working underneath Jeb Bush, embarked in a foot-dragging display of either ridiculous incompetence or partisan mockery of the democratic process.

Fifth, I think Bush v. Gore will go down in history as one of those cases where the court decided badly for the sake of expedience. Telling a state they can go ahead, certify their election results, and seat one slate of electors while the actual full count of votes is unknown, halting the recount in its tracks?

It's a remarkably clear case of an election where everything that could go wrong with our presidential election system did go wrong - and where, frustratingly, if any single one of those problems hadn't been present, the world would be a different place today. Call it a perfect storm of systematic structural problems, hypocritical behavior, fraud, error, and (last but not least) incompetence.

And that bothers me.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

To run like a girl

The other day, this phrase popped into my head. She's running like a girl. Then I shook my head. What was wrong with me?

But there wasn't anything else for me to say. "To run like a girl" was the phrase that directly captured what I was seeing, never mind that girls who run regularly usually don't run that way. Somehow, to run inefficiently, in that peculiar style with the forearms flailing out to the sides, the upper and lower body rotating sideways in opposition to each other, is to run like a girl.

If I just say her running form was bad, it could mean any number of things, but "to run like a girl" somehow captures that specific bad form. Which I, of course, last remember seeing done by a boy. Oh, to live in a language where the idioms are not gendered. What can I say that captures what I saw more specifically than She had poor form without reinforcing sexist beliefs?

And have we yet reached the point where little girls and little boys both participate equally in sports that require them to learn how to run?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Your meat problem

Why cheese is my guilty pleasure

The average American eats about two hundred pounds of meat every year, and this is a problem for everybody. I've personally been a vegetarian for almost two decades now, but as a rule, I don't tell people they need to become vegetarian themselves. However, what most of us can and should do is cut back on animal-based consumption.

I'm still not saying that you need to become a vegetarian like myself, or go all the way to vegan. It's not a lifestyle that everybody is willing, or able, to embrace. I'm just saying that if you're used to centering every meal around what meat is in it, you should probably take it a little easier. Shy away from large cuts; concentrate on quality, rather than quantity.

My meat-loving friends tell me that with meat, quality makes oh so much of a difference in the pleasure of eating it. A lot of them are fans of pricier grass-fed beef over the cheaper grain-fed beef they find in the market; I wouldn't know myself, but I can say that it makes more economic sense in the long haul. Brings us to our first concrete reason of the day.

Traditionally, cattle-using people have come from areas with soil and climate ill-suited to plants that humans can eat, and while grass grows just fine on land that won't grow wheat, land that can grow feed corn can also grow crops that humans can eat directly. Depending on who you ask, it takes four to six pounds of grain to manufacture a pound of pork, two to two and a half for a pound of chicken, and a whopping seven to thirteen pounds of grain go into each pound of beef (1,2 - plus some hay and other fodder) - naturally, on beef, vegetarian activist groups say sixteen pounds, while industry sales groups claim two pounds, but I trust academic references more than advocacy groups.

A pound of cheese, my personal favorite animal product (since I actually eat it), tends to take about three and a half pounds of grain (plus six pounds of other fodder) to make - not as much as beef, but still plenty. It's simply less efficient, and with food prices spiking, that in and of itself is a problem. (So is fuel ethanol, which is just ill-advised, period, but also competes with food in the arable land market).

This year, I've been following my own advice on cheese - reduce the quantity, focus on quality - and I have to say, life is better that way. And speaking of life being better, excess consumption of meat (especially processed meat) is strongly linked to a wide range of health problems. Most of the people in this country would become healthier by cutting their meat consumption to no more than half of what it is now.

I suppose if fewer agricultural subsidies went to feed grain, the increase in the price of meat might just spur a shift in the American diet, but I have my personal doubts on that account. Consumption patterns are highly social, and it takes a great deal to push consumption patterns around. Then, of course, there's a carbon impact intrinsic to meat that's greater than the carbon impact of vegetables, but you already knew that, right?

So, quality over quantity. Think about it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Anecdote and Argument

We are sociable creatures who enjoy telling stories. We learn and teach through parables and fables; it should come as no surprise, therefore, that we turn to anecdotes in laying out arguments for and against something.

The problem is, though, all too often we generalize inappropriately. We fail to see the larger picture, because we're interested in the compelling details in front of us that we can grasp directly. When we have a cold winter in Boone, it does not mean that global warming has stopped. The scope of the data needed to talk meaningfully about global warming is much larger than a season in the life of a single town in the mountains.

The same with education, with market policy, with vitamin supplements, and so on. The more grand the topic, the more important it is that we focus on the larger picture. For example, take health care. In the larger view of things, it does not matter if one patient experiences a three hour wait "because of socialized medicine" or another patient faces a jaw-droppingly unexpected million dollar bill "because the private insurers are greedy." What matters is how well the system works and at what cost.

Whether or not abstinence-only education works is a question that cannot be answered by pointing at Bristol Palin; it can only be answered by studies examining the changes in pregnancy rates and STD frequency in its wake (studies do find abstinence-only education lacking, as it so happens). Enjoy your stories, but before you draw your conclusions, how about holding out for science?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The bachelor's what?

More than anything else, the bachelor's degree seems to be a pass to a social class. Want a white collar job? Get a four year degree. Any four-year degree will do for most of them, as it will mark you as part of the educated middle class.

I can't count how many times I've heard it repeated that what major you had in college matters very little in the corporate world - or how many times I've heard someone say that what they majored in had nothing to do with what they do now. There's even a certain measure of truth to claims that the bachelor's degree is diluted, because there are very few specific things you need to know on graduation. Pick the right school, the right major, the right classes, and the right teachers, and you may coast through having learned very little curriculum material.

It does mark a measure of persistence, and work, or at least financial support of some kind, but while having a degree with (say) a major in chemistry means something specific, the bachelor's degree in general seems to be more a social marking than an educational one. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why demand for a college education is and will remain sky-high - because here in America, it's a pass into the white collar class. Those with a four year degree seem to bear some kind of warrant to look down upon those without one.

Mere curriculum material, I wager, would not warrant such demand. But social standing? Social standing is priceless, and I suspect that, more than anything else, accounts for the disparity in pay grade between those with and those without the sheepskin.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Crossdisciplinary or interdisciplinary?

I went through my undergraduate studies with a triple major - at least one humanity (philosophy) and at least one science (physics). I'd call mathematics a very fine art myself, but describing myself as a fine arts major would lead to no small amount of confusion.

I've been describing myself mainly as cross-disciplinary; the reason is that if I said "interdisciplinary," I might be confused with an "interdisciplinary studies" major. The field of interdisciplinary studies seems to be a very specific one now, and while I've had a good measure of respect for some such programs, I clearly wasn't part of  that particular sort of program.

The very notion of disciplines does mean that problems that cross over the boundaries of traditional disciplines are in an odd spot - perhaps under-studied when they require the tools of both disciplines, perhaps simply subject to poor communication and turf wars when the traditional tools of both disciplines work well on them.

But oh, though the lines are blurry, how useful it is to have separate departments, and so clearly communicate where most of the specialties go!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The case for liberal arts education

In general, I'm a fan of the idea of breadth in education. That's not to say there are no drawbacks to liberal arts educations; if you concentrate on breadth, you lose a little bit of technical depth within your specialty.

The largest drawback of a liberal arts education is that you mainly get out of it what you put into it; it can be easy, at many universities, to skim a wide variety of topics without taking the effort to understand, and if combined with a carefully selected major, it's possible to go through with a minimum of effort.

In benefit, though, you can gain a great deal of understanding of other fields, a great deal more confidence that what you are specializing in (if anything) is one of the things you are best suited for, or most want to do, and more flexibility than offered by technical specialization.

As I looked through Ph. D. programs, I found that - surprising as it may be to you - mathematics doctoral programs often required, for completion, proficiency - at the level of technical translation - with one of a list of specific languages. I have long since ceased being surprised when I find that something I learned in a philosophy class is useful for mathematics or physics, or vice versa.

Or in or for any other subject. The traffic modeling discussed in an introduction to urban planning is covered in applied mathematics; literary analysis techniques are of interest to philosophers; the epistemology studied by philosophers is the foundation of experimental science. If you take it seriously, a liberal arts education is a wonderful thing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I, Agnostic

Occasionally, I tell people that I am an agnostic. This seems to provoke some discussion, now and then, as the devout Christian or equally devout atheist would like to know just how I could be indecisive.

I'm not being indecisive, I reply, and so begins my long story. I'm not an agnostic because I haven't seen the arguments presented by either side, and can't make up my mind; I'm an agnostic because I refuse to believe something I can't know. I can't know there is a God; I can't know there isn't a God. Or Goddess. Or some number or combination of divine, semi-divine, near-omnipotent, or other supernatural beings.

That doesn't mean I don't make contingent judgments, or moral judgments, or ethical judgments, or that I don't have my own peculiar fanatical beliefs. I don't need to believe in a God, or know punishments or rewards await me in the afterlife, to decide what I should and should not do; to be the best person that I can be, to do good as best as I can, is its own reward. Nor do I need to deny others their own leap of faith in declaring there is - or is not - some God out there. For practical terms, one good leap of faith is worth quite a bit of philosophizing.

For myself, I am content to muddle along on judgments, logic, and philosophy, knowing there are things out there that I cannot know.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Seven problems in US elections

  1. Primaries. They're fixed in such a way that different states matter different amounts for different parties' candidates, and in some cases, the primaries either don't matter or, in areas with by-party primaries and landslide support for one or the other party, decide all too much.
  2. The electoral college. Contrary to popular opinion, the electoral college amplifies the effect of large states and makes small states matter less. In practice, since politics is regional, this means a few states have disproportionate leverage and gain special treatment from presidential candidates.
  3. Plurality voting. There are tons of better alternatives, from instant runoffs to the Borda count to approval voting.
  4. "Third party" candidates. See #3 - there are better ways to do elections that aren't nearly as vulnerable to the spoiler effect, but while you have a plurality election, third party candidates have at best the effect of trying to make sure that the two major parties don't completely ignore their radical wings.
  5. Campaign finance. There are good things about the system in place, but that doesn't mean it can't still be fixed.
  6. The public polling horserace. I like to follow the polls just as much as the next person, but I think sometimes we spent too much effort trying to figure out what groups are "key" to an election and who will win by how much.
  7. The median voter theorem applies to public perceptions, not reality. We really could use better honesty, accountability, and more clearly differentiated options that don't simply talk past each other in code designed to reach the base and bypass the moderates.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What's wrong with "sorostitute?"

I feel like I probably should have spoken up more often when this came up in conversation - now that I'm leaving my old university, it'll probably come up quite rarely, but over the years, it's come to bother me more and more often when I hear people bashing sorority girls. It's not that I think social fraternal organizations have much - if any - of a net positive effect on campus life on the whole, or that I've ever considered joining one. It's not that I cringe similarly hearing people grumble about frat boys.

The problem I have is with the kind of criticism I hear about sorority girls. I enjoy reasoned critiques of any social institution, whether or not I agree with the criticism or not. "Reasoned" and "insightful" has nothing to do with what I keep hearing.

More often than not, the criticism I hear in person about sorority girls reduces to the accusation of slut. Such a loaded term. While having sex often may not always be advisable - for whatever reasons you might believe, and we could spend hours debating why or why not - it's not something we should be vilifying, and I'm especially tired of hearing women called "sluts."

There's a clear gendered double standard in how promiscuity gets talked about, and I'm just plain tired of it. "Fratmattress" and "sorostitute" may have sounded amusing the first time I heard them, but that was close to seven years ago. Now, they just sound derogatory, demeaning, and just plain mean. Think about it for a minute.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In a perfect world, there are no abortions

There are few debates that make me as uncomfortable as the one over abortion. Perhaps it is because I saw Citizen Ruth when I was thirteen; perhaps it was because I grew up in the UU church, and was told to question everything and make up my own mind, rather than being told what I must believe.

Perhaps it's simply because I am willing to discuss any topic with anybody, and so I've come to learn that abortion lies in a very grey area: In a perfect world, there are no abortions. Why? Because there are no unwanted pregnancies, no medical complications, and so no demand for abortions. Depending on which camp you belong to, either people aren't having sex that isn't intended for reproduction, or they're using contraception that works all the time when they don't want to reproduce.

But contraception does fail. Accidents happen. Worse, rape happens. All sorts of conditions in the real world create pregnancies that aren't desired, and it's here in the real world that the abortion debate lives. And it's conditions in the real world that can render the debate a moot point; invest in medical technology and reproductive infrastructure enough, and abortion could become obsolete or nearly so.

Until you do, we have a very real conflict between rights and values, with a philosophical open question thrown into the mix for good measure, to keep everybody at loggerheads.

One right is the right to control what happens to your body. When this right is violated, it's terrifying; fundamentally, we see our bodies as ourselves, and our very identity is threatened when that control is taken away. The other right is the right of every human to live. And here's the fundamental question: When do we stop being the potential to become human and actually become human? Because at that moment, the two rights can conflict.

How you answer the question of when life starts usually fixes you on the pro-life/pro-choice map. Myself, I don't know; I suspect I can't know. Conception - at which point there exists only a glob of undifferentiated cells? At quickening? At birth? One's naming day? Eighteen months later? I think birth is a convenient marking-post, but it's a fairly arbitrary one. Viable outside the womb? That's a moving one, depending on medical technology and financial investment.

Personally, I see the pro-choice position as practical. I don't know if I'm right, but if abortion is murder, miscarriage is manslaughter - and that is a terrifying idea to me, having watched a couple I lived with go through a miscarriage. I can only imagine what effect a criminal investigation would have had on them.

I know, firstly, that abortions will happen whether they are legal or not, and if they are not legal, they will be likely frightful and dangerous;l that most people are not inclined towards looking at this issue coldly or rationally, and that most people don't see the technological route to circumventing the entire problem that I see with such clarity.

I know, secondly, with certainty, that if we do not allow a woman to choose to stop being pregnant, that we will violate her right to control what happens to her own body. I am not so certain if exercising her right to sovereignity over her own body conflicts with another imperative, but that question I am in no position to judge. And that is why I will leave it to each and every woman to grapple with the choice of whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.

I know, thirdly, that if someone wants to stop abortion, it is their logical duty to fight for improvements in contraception, for comprehensive sexual education, and to fight against rape culture, all of which will help reduce the number of abortions performed. If you do not so fight, do not tell me that eliminating abortion is your number one priority, because you aren't doing all that you could do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on the graduate admissions process

Now that I've had a month after making my final decision to let the emotions settle, I think I have a few things to say about the graduate admissions process. A few of the things I have to say probably apply to the college admissions process as well.

The first thing that strikes me is that the graduate admission process was expensive. GRE subject test fees ($130 per), GRE general test fees ($140), an extra $20 per score report, $12 to get your scores by phone. Then you have fees to send official transcripts, and then actual application fees - usually about $50 for your application. For us poor applicants, getting into a graduate school is worth well over the one to three thousand dollars we can expect to spend on the process, but it still feels like we're getting gouged.

To say nothing of the time invested in essays, forms, letters of recommendation, et cetera, that we would rather be spending on research or coursework. I have a short list of pet peeves coming out of this that many graduate program directors - or graduate school administrators, in some cases - might be well advised to read.
  • Ask for one official score report and one official transcript. Photocopies are much cheaper than official reports (pennies vs dollars, even accounting for labor). What is the application fee supposed to cover, anyway?
  • Exorbitant applications fees will shrink the size of your applications pool, but won't improve its quality. Or socioeconomic diversity, come to that.
  • Have one application form that can be filled out completely online. Embark and Applyweb are good, although they could be improved. Having your own online application isn't bad. Having multiple independent online forms, or requiring some materials online and some via snail-mail? Please.
I think it would be wonderful if a third-party, like ApplyWeb or Embark, cut the paperwork (and ETS's additional score report cash flow) off at the knees by accepting and scanning in official transcripts and score reports, and graduate schools only required final official hardcopies for their own records upon admitting a student. If transcript-reading was automated, the various department-specific lists of "What courses in our department and what grade did you get in that course?" could be automated online, too. The applications process could be made a lot less painful for students.

The second thing that comes to my mind is the game-theoretic disaster that the admissions process is. Look at - say - physics. Many top-half programs' rejection rates closing in on 90% (or, in a few cases, higher) rejection rates for many reputable doctoral programs, you have to apply to multiple schools if you want to go on with your career.

So let me just say that in physics, the subject GRE is required by almost all top-half schools - which are, naturally, more popular places to apply than bottom-half schools. Yet less than 2500 people take the physics GRE per year (ref), while around 3000 students start graduate work every year in physics (ref).

Those of you doing math on your napkins may have noticed something: If the top-half programs reject an overwhelming majority of all applicants (around 90% in many cases), and the overwhelming majority of applicants get in somewhere, then most applicants are sending out a great number of applications (somewhere around ... ten, you might guess).

Students have an incentive to apply to more schools in order to increase their odds of getting in somewhere. With individual rejection rates like those, your application is a crapshoot even if you have impresive qualifications. End result? Hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of pages of forms wasted simply in the process of trying to allocate graduate students to schools, in a giant orgy of statistical noise. There has got to be a better way to do this.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gay marriage

How the Republican Party lost the youth of America

It's surprising to me how quickly the public dialogue over gay marriage has shifted since the Iowa supreme court decision a little over a month ago. What wasn't surprising to me was Nate Silver coming up with a regression for gay marriage amendment votes, and that regression showed a 2% per year decrease in voters willing to vote for a gay marriage ban.

Polls have shown a marked generation gap in the support for gay marriage. Slowly but steadily, older voters against gay marriage have died off, while younger citizens in support of gay marriage have been reaching voting age. It's not the sort of issue people have been changing their minds about very quickly.

In 2004, a slight majority of the voting age public was against gay marriage. The Republican party made a large issue out of gay marriage in many states, tying state and national campaigning to efforts that put eleven measures against gay marriage on state ballots. Eight of these measures banned civil unions. This drove Republican base turnout up and helped Bush defeat Kerry.

In the long run, however, this was a poor strategic move, one of several decisions that would drive the younger voters of America away from the Republican party in droves in 2006 and 2008. From CNN's exit polls: The age gap seen in the support for Obama and McCain? 66-32 among 18-29 year olds... right in the range of exit polling on Proposition 8 in California the same year. Coincidence? I think not.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Argumentum ad Trebuchet

The logical rejoinder to anybody invoking the phrase "when pigs fly."