Archive for the 'Rants' Category

Who I Hope We Are Not as Americans

So let me get this straight. We drew this imaginary line in the desert. We’ll no longer use force to move people from this side to that side, but we will still use force to prevent movement from that side to this side.

This is good news for the people who are on this side at the moment, and I share their joy. But it does little for their less fortunate cousins who never made it here in the first place.

The president talks about “who we are as Americans”. I’d have hoped that we as Americans were not so basely hypocritical as to find it imperative that we stop bullying Group A (i.e. those who are here), but equally imperative that we continue to bully the even less fortunate Group B (i.e. those who aspire to be here).

This is a day to celebrate and a day to mourn.

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Quote of the Day, Election Edition

From Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times, writing with no apparent sense of irony about Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Serena Mancini:

She favors raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, for example, and opposes making Rhode Island a “right to work” state. Her chief focus is creating jobs.

If you doubt the existence or direction of bias at the New York Times, ask yourself when you’re next likely to read a Times piece that says something like:

She favors widespread deregulation, for example, and opposes all taxes on capital income. Her chief focus is alleviating poverty.

Wait, that’s an imperfect analogy, since (unlike the passage from Ms. Seelye) it actually makes sense. Let me try again:

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Playing the Dunce

This morning I heard President Obama call for universities to lower their tuition rates so that “everybody in America can go to college”.

I am virtually certain that the President is not stupid enough to think that if tuition rates fell to zero, there would magically be enough room in the colleges for everybody in America. So I’ve got to believe that he’s purposely saying stupid things in order to appeal to stupid voters — the sort of voters, in other words, who probably don’t belong in college.

To believe what the President wants you to believe, you’d have to be not just stupid but badly misinformed. At the University where I teach, we do not lack for applicants. The reason we don’t have more students is not that they can’t afford us; it’s that we don’t have room for them.

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You Pays Your Money…..

A few months ago, I sat in a Dutailier glider and discovered that I had lived half a century with no concept of how comfortable a chair can be. My wife had exactly the same reaction. So we’d like to buy a couple of those chairs.

Unfortunately, Dutailier no longer makes the model we sat in. Fortunately, they make similar models. Unfortunately, they make one hundred and thirty nine models, of which at least fifty-nine appear to be serious contenders for “model most similar to the one we sat in”.

Those customers who somehow manage to choose among these models are then offered a choice of 113 different upholstery fabrics, 22 different wood finishes, and 10 “model options” (including “glide only”, “glide plus multiposition lock”, “glide plus autolock” and “glide plus multiposition lock plus autolock”) for a staggering 3,455,540 possible chairs. (That’s an approximation, because some models come with more or fewer options.) Color me paralyzed.

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Note to Continental Airlines

Your inability to construct a functional website does not fill me with confidence about your ability to fly me across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Jesus Christ!


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writing in the Atlantic, has figured out that Jesus Christ wants you to be a Democrat. There are, you see, 2500 passages in the New Testament that call on us to care about other people. Rick Perry (and presumably others of his Republican ilk) ignores those passages, according to Ms. Townsend, when he voices “concerted opposition to government social programs”.

Now, of course Rick Perry is no more concertedly opposed to government social programs than is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; instead, they disagree about how those programs should be structured and how extensive they should be. Not even Ms. Townsend (unless she is an even greater lunatic than she appears to be) believes that such programs should be unlimited, so her disagreement with Rick Perry is largely over where to draw the lines. Somewhere in those 2500 New Testament passages, she’s managed to discern an endorsement for her own preferred lines over Governor Perry’s. Quite a discerning reader she must be.

But it gets worse: According to Ms. Townsend’s reading of the Bible, we ought to “use all the tools we have at hand to help the poor, the sick and the hungry” — and I’m guessing that’s not someplace Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants to go. That’s because using all the tools at hand to help the poor, the sick and the hungry means unleashing the power of capitalism. Regarding the poor and hungry, it means eliminating barriers to trade and immigration, reducing or eliminating capital taxation, and eliminating or drastically restructuring most federal regulations. Regarding the sick, it means curbing the power of the FDA, eliminating the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance, and committing ourselves not to regulate the prices of prescription drugs. As a general rule, it means diminishing the power of the political class that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has devoted her life to serving.

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Turn Off Their Lights

The EPA announced yesterday that new regulations mandating fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks will cost vehicle buyers $8 billion, but that will be paid for in fuel savings over a year or two.

Oh. Sounds like the mandate is quite unnecessary then, no? With numbers like that, consumers will demand high efficiency vehicles with or without the EPA. Unless, of course, the EPA is, umm….lying.

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In a Fit of Pique

For God’s sake, don’t let your children subscribe to Sirius/XM.

Since May 4, when Sirius rearranged all its channel numbers, my radio has been badly confused. If I punch in station 23, it goes to the station that’s currently 23 for a while, then jumps to the station that used to be 23, etc. And certain stations, which according to the Sirius website are part of my standard package, are completely inaccessible.

Given my past experience with XM customer service, I knew this was not going to be an easy fix, so I’ve been putting off making the call. Today I had some spare time. Sure enough, I’ve spent over TWO HOURS on the phone with these people being alternately put on hold, lied to, put on hold, lied to some more, and put on hold again.

They claim the missing channels are missing because they’re “premium” channels not included in my package. Except that their website clearly identifies these channels as standard channels that *are* part of my package. They tell me that they’re instituting a fix at their end which requires me to leave my radio on for fifteen minutes before it takes effect; this gives them a convenient excuse to hang up and not be there fifteen minutes down the line when nothing has changed. When I complain about how long I’ve been on hold (the automated system always says the wait time is “about eight minutes” before stranding you for half an hour), they give me a direct number to call to bypass the queue. I call that number and am told that no, this number is only for radios installed on airlines or boats. I complain that I’ve just waited twenty minutes to get this message. They give me a *different* number to call, promising me that there is currently no wait at that number. Thirty five minutes later, I’m still waiting.

Ah, but what about just using the form on their web site? Well, you see, that form will not allow me to submit a query unless I give it the serial number of my radio — a serial number that it insists is wrong, even though I have *copied and pasted* it from the “My Account” section of their own damned website. Therefore my query cannot be submitted.

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Hawkeye Talk

Some people claim (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps absurdly — I lean toward the latter) that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents. In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason):

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The other side might just as well (i.e. just as pointlessly) argue that Mr. Wahls’s penchant for irrelevance proves the inefficacy of gay parenting.

What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired. Odds are, this pernicious message was reinforced by the college writing courses that I complained about in Chapter 23 of The Big Questions.

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Foreign Policy

xenoThe LA Times reports that Republican lawmakers have called on the Obama administration to return to the Bush-era practice of sending jackbooted thugs into private workplaces to arrest illegal aliens — revealing (as if we didn’t already know) that virulent xenophobia is alive and well in the Republican party. (Note well the hypocrisy of complaining that foreigners sneak into our country to take advantage of the welfare system, and then addressing the problem by focusing your deportation efforts on foreigners who have obviously come here to work).

The same Times article observes that even without the workplace raids, deportations have reached new heights for two years running at the direction of President Barack Obama — revealing (as if we didn’t already know) that virulent xenophobia is alive and well in the Democratic party too. This is, after all, the same Barack Obama who said in his acceptance speech at the 2008 convention that nobody benefits when an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. Well, sure. Nobody, that is, except the employer, his customers, and the illegal workers who, in Barack Obama’s universe, count as “nobody”.

This raises the idle question: Which political party harbors more xenophobia? I have no careful documentation of this, but my impression in the 2008 election was that the Democrat John Edwards was the most despicable of the candidates in this dimension, with the Republican Mitt Romney running a somewhat distant but still unchallenged second. Going back to 2004, it was the Democrat John Kerry who called for federal contracts, whenever possible, to be performed by American workers, demanded tax incentives for firms that hired Americans instead of foreigners, and endorsed legislation encouraging consumers to “buy American”. (If that doesn’t strike you as virulent, ask yourself how you’d feel about a candidate who called for federal contracts, whenever possible, to be performed by white workers, demanded tax incentives for firms that hired whites instead of blacks, and endorsed legislation encouraging consumers to “buy White”.) But it was the Republican victor, George Bush, who followed in his Republican father’s footsteps by dispatching those jackbooted thugs who evoke such nostalgia in Republican leaders of today.

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Slippery Lube

xkcdIt has been said of Lubos Motl that he’s hard to ignore, but it’s always worth the effort. I will, soon enough, take this advice to heart. But not quite yet. Lubos’s penchant for twisting other people’s words, just so he can have something to argue about, is well known and widely remarked. As his most recent victim (though “victim” is of course too strong a word, no actual harm having been done), I thought it would be both fun and instructive to challenge him to a bet. True to form, he continued to bluster but of course refused to back up his misrepresentations with actual cash.

Now of course Lubos will say that it is I who am twisting words, and in particular that I either “changed the question” or “changed the answer” (or both) between the original post and the offer to bet. That, however, won’t wash, since I’ve agreed, as part of the terms of the bet, to let an impartial panel of statistics professors determine the answer to the question as it was originally posed. So even if I had changed the question (which I haven’t), this would prevent me from getting away with it. (And no, I haven’t changed the answer either. If Lubos claims I have, we can put that to the stats profs also.)

I’m feeling annoyed enough to say a little more along these lines, but first I’d like to make it crystal clear that my annoyance does not extend to readers who are still puzzling this out. The problem with Lubos isn’t that he’s got it wrong; it’s that he’s not the least bit interested in getting it right. A few particulars:

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Why Yes. The Law Is An Ass.

According to U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, the same government that requires you to buy retirement insurance (via Social Security) is constitutionally barred from requiring you to buy health insurance.

Apparently some idiot lawyers have gotten it into their heads that the Social Security mandate is okay because it’s called a “tax”, whereas the Obamacare mandate is not okay because it’s enforced by what’s called a system of “fines”. From which I infer that if the government taxes you $1000 and uses it to buy you some health insurance, that’s constitutional. Or, if the government gives you a tax credit for buying insurance (after raising taxes to cover the cost of everyone’s credits, of course), then that’s constitutional — just as tax credits for home insulation are constitutional. Whereas if they just require you to buy $1000 worth of health insurance directly, that’s not constitutional even though it has exactly the same consequences as other policies that are constitutional. From which I infer that the law is an ass.

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The New Parochialism

So a former chairman of the Republican National Committee comes out as gay, and endorses gay marriage, but continues to support politicians who oppose gay marriage. For this he is labeled (on blogs too numerous to link) a first-class hypocrite.

I missed the memo about the new criteria for hypocrisy, so I’d like a little clarification here. Are Catholics now required to vote solely on the basis of Catholic issues, and union workers solely on the basis of union issues, and billionaires solely on the basis of billionaire issues? Or is it only gays who are forbidden to prioritize, say, foreign affairs and tax policy? And what’s to become of the multifaceted? If you’re a gay Jewish small business owner, to which brand of parochialism are you now in thrall? Please advise.

The End of Racism

I was delighted last month to learn that racism in America has been thoroughly vanquished, as evidenced by the NAACP’s having nothing better to do than complain about a greeting card that shows cartoon characters encountering black holes as they hurtle through space. (“It’s very demeaning to African American women”. See if you can guess why, then watch the video below to check your answer.)

I realize that some will criticize the NAACP for over-reacting here, or for mis-reacting. But cut them a break. You don’t see them doing anything truly loonytunes, like, say, commanding the amorphous Tea Party movement to “expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take full responsibility for all of their actions.” Right?

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A hat tip to our frequent commenter Ken B. for pointing me to the video.

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All in the Details

jetblueIs there a name for this phenomenon? A firm sinks vast resources into an immensely complicated engineering project and gets most of it right, but gets one detail so glaringly wrong that it seems like they might just as well not have bothered. Lexus and Jet Blue come to mind.

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Teachers and Councilors

S030409JB-0043.JPGThe White House has dispatched Christy Romer, a distinguished economist and chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, to rustle up support for emergency spending to keep teachers employed. Her piece in the Washington Post is remarkable for a complete absence of arguments in favor of spending this money on teachers as opposed to say, plumbers or cab drivers or pharmaceutical researchers or computer programmers or minor league ballplayers. (See for yourself.)

So why the singular focus on teachers? The answer, of course, is that unlike plumbers or cab drivers or pharmaceutical workers or computer programmers, teachers, through their unions, were major contributors to the Obama campaign.

All victorious politicians engage in the unsavory practice of diverting spoils to their most vigorous supporters at everyone else’s expense. In this, the current administration may be no more blameworthy than any other. But I’m pretty sure that sending out the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors to defend these political payoffs marks a new sort of low. Traditionally, the Council is composed of first-rate academics whose job is to give good counsel and remain above the political fray. Shame on the President for debasing that noble mission, and shame on Christy Romer for going along with it.

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Making Math Palatable

My colleague Ralph Raimi is witty, acerbic and wise about many things, but particularly about mathematics education. A little time spent browsing around his web page will reap ample rewards in the form of both entertainment and edification. Today I’d like to share a little passage he sent me by email:

I have never tried to count the times I have read a newspaper article explaining that students are bored with math that has no visible practical application, and follows with an example of a teacher, or club, that rectifies the situation in some novel and engaging way.

In the present case a class has built a sculpture that resembles a graph of a modulated wave motion. Of all the practical, real-world
applications of mathematics! It is as practical as a snowman.

Why doesn’t anyone ask for real-world applications of table tennis? What a bore any game must be, that has no real-world application! Why do kids stand for it? Ping-pong again? Ugh.

But I can think of something: Let’s all make a model of a ping-pong ball in the school yard, seventy feet high, blocking all the entrances and thus preventing all us students from entering the (ugh) school. Then we can take our fishing poles and torn straw hats out from under our beds and, with the hats on our heads and fishing poles over our shoulders, all traipse together down the dusty road to Norman Rockwell’s house.

That’s Rich

“It’s now crystal clear what the Tea Party stands for” says Frank Rich midway through a column that makes it crystal clear what Frank Rich stands for, and it isn’t pretty.

Whatever you may think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a whole, it indisputably narrows property rights by allowing politicians to dictate the policies of private businesses. Not only is it perfectly reasonable to find that at least a little disturbing, it’s perfectly unreasonable not to find it a little disturbing—even if your ultimate judgment is that it’s a necessary means to a desirable end. Even avid supporters of the Patriot Act ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about privacy, even avid supporters of capital punishment ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about false convictions, and even avid supporters of the Civil Rights Act ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about property rights.

Frank Rich, who equates Rand Paul’s expression of those concerns with nostalgia for the Confederacy, thereby makes himself as scurrilous as those who equate reservations about the Patriot Act with being “on the side of the terrorists”. The “gotcha” game is bad enough when a single thoughtless remark becomes the pretext for dismissing an entire movement. Here the pretext is a single thoughtful remark.

If we are to discredit everyone who is capable of subtler thought than Frank Rich, then there is no hope for the level of public discourse.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Journalism Majors

Alright, this is hilarious. Or pathetic. Or hilarious in a pathetic sort of way. Or something.

Last week in Boston, a water main broke, rendering tap water undrinkable (unless it was boiled). This inspired the journalism majors at Boston station WHDH to produce some highly emotional footage about two tragic side effects—side effects which, as far as it was possible to tell based on everything they teach in journalism school, were entirely unrelated.

First, we had the report on price gouging, featuring a woman weeping—-weeping!—-because her son had been charged $1 a bottle instead of the recent sale price of $3.99 for a case of 24. Then, we had the entirely separate report on frustrated consumers who had visited five stores and/or waited in long lines to buy bottled water. Apparently nobody at WHDH thought to ask how much longer those lines might have been if prices hadn’t risen.

Nor, apparently, have the folks at WHDH ever learned that the whole point of prices is that they adjust quickly to changes in market conditions, and that that’s a good thing. Even the convenience store owner who is a pure altruist and refuses to profit from a crisis would be well advised to raise the price of water and donate the proceeds to charity, rather than allowing all of the available water to be snatched up by whoever happens to arrive first or elbow everyone else out of the way.

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Unhappy Reasoning

happyIn a New Yorker essay, Elizabeth Kolbert takes at face value the widely reported statistic that “the average level of self-reported happiness, or subjective well-being, appears to have been flat going all the way back to the nineteen-fifties, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today”. Proceeding from the assumption that these self-reports tell us something about actual happiness, Kolbert, proceeds to muse on the policy implications, quoting ex-Harvard president Derek Bok with approval:

If rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?

Wait a minute, now. Self-reported happiness has been flat for fifty years despite rising incomes. Self-reported happiness has also been flat for fifty years despite dramatic increases in leisure and environmental quality. (Since 1965, the average American has gained about six hours a week of leisure—the equivalent of seven vacation weeks a year.) So why aren’t Bok and Kolbert asking why we bother to come home from the office, take vacations, and clean our air and water?

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Worked Up

bangladeshBack in 1992, a ten year old Bangladeshi girl named Moyna was one of 50,000 children who lost their jobs in the wake of protectionist legislation sponsored by the execrable union-backed Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. How does Moyna feel about Americans now? “They loathe us, don’t they?”, she says. “We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.” (The quote is from this report by the Bangladeshi activist Shahidul Alam.)

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