June 30, 2007

served eleven days cold

All year, there was a group of five or ten juniors who just wouldn't do any work. No homework, no classwork, no tests, no nothing. Eventually I figured out why: they'd made a basically rational calculation that it would be less work to pass summer school than to pass my class. 20 days, easy tests, low standards. It drove me crazy, because they were right; but because they didn't care about my class at all, they had no incentive to sit down and shut up or learn anything or care about a goddamn thing I said.

Today, eleven days after the end of the school year, I got a call from the person who's teaching Algebra II at my high school this summer. He's in the same program I'm in, and he's planning to make them work. This ain't your usual summer school.

Revenge, mothafuckas!

June 29, 2007

natural selection

A partial list of selective pressures that modern medicine has made irrelevant to humans in the developed world (and the technology that fixes them):

Good eyesight (glasses, contacts, LASIK)
Easy childbirth (C-section)
To some extent, high sperm count (fertility treatments)
Lactose tolerance (lactaid, abundant and varied food)
Resistance to smallpox, measles mumps rubella, tetanus, diptheria, pertussis, chickenpox, polio, and meningitis (childhood vaccinations)
Resistance to black plague, streptococcus, cholera, infant diarrhea (antibiotics and water treatment)

Is this relevant information? If so, how and why? If not, why not?

June 28, 2007

intellectual communist

Rebecca Charles, owner of Pearl Oyster Bar, where I have never eaten, is suing someone who runs a similar restaurant on the grounds that he is taking her intellectual property. Yeah, he was her sous chef. But gray wainscoting is her intellectual property? Oyster crackers at a seafood restaurant are her intellectual property? Puh-leeze.

This just displays why the whole idea that intellectual property is somehow the same as physical property is silly. There are two macro-level reasons to protect intellectual property: so people have an incentive to invent and design and come up with cool stuff because they'll be able to make money off it, and because it's unfair when someone steals your idea and makes money off it. Unfortunately, that whole incentive thing is kind of getting lost and law is getting reshaped to value only the second one.

This is really what the internet radio copyright issue was about: internet radio stations, most of which make little money, are being required to pay SoundExchange, the royalty organization, a lot more than they previously had to. Worse, their decision is retroactive, which will probably put some of them out of business. This unambiguously reduces the flow of ideas and music and general awesomeness, and is opposed by many smaller artists, who get a lot more exposure through internet radio than regular radio. Similarly, early hip-hop artists could do crazy awesome sampling in which they used little bits of dozens or hundreds or thousands of songs to make a track or an album, which is instrumental to Public Enemy's early sound. In 1991, copyright restrictions tightened; in 2004 the 6th Circuit ruled that NWA sampling an unrecognizable bit of George Clinton constituted copyright infringement. Legal radio play for that kind of sound is over. Now if someone is going to sample another song, they're going to make damn sure they get what they pay thousands of dollars for, so you actually get a less creative sound from sampling as artists play bigger, less altered parts of the sample.

Enforcing the "it's unfair for people to steal your stuff" goal of intellectual property is particularly dumb because it's not like it hurts George Clinton to have an unrecognizable, heavily altered 3-note guitar riff show up in an NWA song. That's very clearly new innovation, new art, the kind of thing that should be a major goal of intellectual property laws, that it makes me a little despairing about the stupidity of the system. It also shows up why it's so dumb to treat intellectual property like an exact analogue of physical property: when someone 'steals' your intellectual property, you can still use it. If you take my electric pencil sharpener, I can't use it anymore. Intellectual property law needs to differentiate more clearly between situations where someone takes your intellectual property and you lose some important use of it (e.g. selling bootleg DVDs) and situations where something you made becomes inspiration (restaurants, books, musicians do this all the time) or part of a new art form in a way that doesn't limit your use (sampling).

By these standards, I think it's pretty clear that Ed's Lobster Bar gets to have gray wainscoting and a marble bar. And he may win, but I wish people would stop with the rhetorical equating of intellectual and physical property already. Especially since just about everything owes some kind of intellectual debt to someone, including all those musicians SoundExchange alleges to protect, making it almost impossible to tell where these lines should be drawn. Are we now going to prosecute all the Beatles rip-off bands? Every angsty teen-age girl who covers an Ani song at an open mike night? There's a telling moment in the NYT article in which Rebecca Charles, whose number one complaint about Ed McFarland's restaurant is the Caesar salad, whose recipe she says he stole, describes where her recipe came from: "She learned it from her mother, who extracted it decades ago from the chef at a long-gone Los Angeles restaurant." Does she owe her mother royalties? Does her mother owe the chef? Where is this silliness going to stop?

In the Public Enemy interview linked above, Chuck D gets asked what he thinks about fans remixing his tracks without permission. He says, "I think my feelings are obvious. I think it's great."

June 27, 2007

I <3 Elizabeth Edwards

So. Everyone hates Ann Coulter. Too bad most of her critics aren't as classy or resolute as Elizabeth Edwards,1 who called in to Hardball to "ask her politely to stop the personal attacks," which thus far have consisted of calling John Edwards a faggot, wishing "he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot," and claiming (in a column!) that he drove around with a bumper sticker that said "Ask me about my son's death in a horrific car accident." Seeing Coulter's response to Elizabeth Edwards asking her repeatedly and politely to stop saying horrible things about her family blew my mind. Coulter's responses were basically 100% lies, irrelevant, or ad hominem attacks: "I didn’t say anything about him," "I don't have enough money" to hang out with the same people as the Edwards family, "Why isn't John Edwards making this call?", "The wife of a presidential candidate is asking me to stop speaking."

I mean seriously, why is she getting invited on Hardball? Or anything? She's famous for being mean, and I know a lot of funnier, smarter, more interesting mean people I could recommend if Chris Matthews is fresh out of ideas.

Elizabeth Edwards's response was something you recognize if you're from the Midwest, or apparently the South: the polite, mild-mannered lady who will not let you walk all over her and will hold her line no matter what.2 Edwards just kept saying that Coulter's nasty personal attacks "are not legitimate political dialogue," "debases political dialogue," etc. She's a force to be reckoned with, even if she's being resolutely polite. There are a number of people like that among my parents' friends, but I don't think I've ever seen it done that well. Coulter's response was all spluttering and vitriol, and the contrast could not have been more clear.

Unfortunately, the people who commented on that Think Progress video and transcript were neither so restrained nor so effective. There's plenty to hate about Ann Coulter, but insinuating that she's transgender or talking about her "deteriorated face" or calling her a coke whore - these are ad hominem attacks that mimic the worst of Coulter's own rhetoric, not to mention being horrifyingly anti-feminist. I feel like I need to take a shower just reading the thread. Remember, the problem isn't what she looks like, it's what she says and how she says it. The way to fight her is to pull an Elizabeth Edwards: pointedly courteous, consistent, honest, clear, letting Ann Coulter make herself look foolish.

1. The more I learn about John Edwards as a candidate, the more I like him. There was that NYT magazine profile about his focus on poverty, which was fairly satisfying. I also read and dissected his health care proposal with Abramorous. It's really good. If he could get it passed, it would totally work: cover everyone, reduce costs, take some of the burden off businesses. I feel conflicted about how much I like Edwards, though, because I kind of want to be supporting Obama. Yes, because he's black, but also because he does a kind of policy-oriented politics that I like, because he's not tainted by previous elections, because he's different from the political mainstream in a way I like. Hrrumph.
2. Another courageous Elizabeth Edwards moment: she (1) attended a San Francisco Pride kick-off breakfast for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and (2) remarked off-handedly that she supports same-sex marriage. Word.

No wonder I like Goslings so much

It's aged in bourbon casks.

In other news of summer decadence, I've been to Capogiro twice in the last two days. Holy hell, that place is amazing.

Monday: strawberries and cream gelato with cucumber sorbetto; the person I was with had Charentais melon and grape sorbetto.

Tuesday: rhubarb sorbetto with rosemary honey goat milk gelato, which, whoa; the person I was with (someone different) had gooseberry and lychee.

Who wants to go with me tonight?

June 26, 2007

read The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've read something like 5 books that really changed something about my life or my thinking. I've read them all since I turned 20, and together they make up a good part of how I think about the world. They were significant not because they radically changed everything about how I thought, but because they consolidated and added to some understandings I already had, and got me started thinking in new directions.

One of them is The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has the disadvantage of being pretty trendy right now. But let me tell you why you should read it anyway. Mostly because it's awesome, and a little because it's about to come out in paperback.

It's subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals." Michael Pollan - the author of basically all the local food articles for the NYT magazine in the last few years - investigated four ways of getting and making food, then cooked a meal from each. Significantly, he originally planned to make it three: industrial (meal at McDonalds), organic (Whole Foods, etc), and wild (hunting and foraging the ingredients). As he got deeper into the research about organic farming, he realized that enormous, single-crop organic operations like Earthbound Farms (proud producers of that fancy lettuce mix) are wildly different from small local farms that integrate different kinds of plants and animals.

That tiny insight is the seed of what is so important to me about this book: the recognition of farms as ecosystems. They've got plants making sugar from the sun, animals eating plants (insect pests or farm animals), animals eating each other (predators of insect pests), nutrient cycling, all the features of any ecosystem. Once I started to see a farm as an ecosystem - a small one, dependent on the other systems around it, but an ecosystem nevertheless - the whole way I thought about responsible farming changed. I'd been very focused on an idea about how much absolute energy it took to produce a food item, which led me to be a vegetarian for about 10 years. Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma shifted my focus to trying to eat in a way that contributed to the existence of sustainable ecosystems.

Sustainable ecosystems are sustainable by virtue of the fact that they can keep going. Whatever they are doing doesn't hit a dead end or run out of steam. To do that in the temperate zones of the US often focuses around soil: keeping erosion pretty minimal, keeping a fairly closed loop in which nutrients leave the soil, go into plants, and somehow get back to the soil. Without the closed loop, the value of the soil erodes and the land needs external fertilizers to be usable; farmers end up dependent on expensive inputs, so they have to maximize production to make it, so they deplete the soil, so they need more inputs. This isn't a sustainable system. You need to do real nutrient cycling. It turns out that animals are by far the best way to do this, because they eat plants and parts of plants and then poop out easily composted fertilizer. Do this right and you can actually restore a piece of land to health by farming it, as Pollan describes Joel Salatin doing on Polyface Farm. This makes a lot of sense when you remember that this continent was managed for food production by Native Americans even when they weren't using agriculture.

This took me in two directions. On a practical level, I decided I wanted to support healthy farm ecosystems. Since farmers need animals to do nutrient cycling, that means supporting small-scale animal production. It would be nice to say that this is why I originally started eating meat again. Actually, I was sleeping outside 150 nights a year and was just cold all the time. Bacon? It'll keep you warm at night. I kept eating meat after I gave up my wilderness job because I'd rather get my protein in a way that helps small-scale farmers have healthy ecosystem than eat industrial soy, which is planted in monocrops that are ruining the unbelievably fertile prairie ecology of the Midwest. I see my food choices differently: partly because of The Omnivore's Dilemma, also partly because of the Gardener and my parents. Wendell Berry said "eating is an agricultural act." Eating is also an ecological act, because farming is an ecological act.1

The other, maybe more interesting, direction my mind went wandering while I read The Omnivore's Dilemma was to thinking about the sort of complexity that is at (maybe beyond) the limit of human understanding. In one of his articles, Pollan lists the known antioxidant compounds in a sprig of thyme: it goes on for a full paragraph. In the book, he describes the NPK revolution, in which agronomists believed they had discovered the only nutrients plants needed: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Feeding plants only these three things is roughly equivalent to feeding a human a blend of pure fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Even if you eat the right proportions, you're missing tons of minerals and vitamins and compounds we know almost nothing about right now. Also interesting is that the meat of a grass-fed cow is nutritionally very different from the meat of a corn-fed cow, and has meaningfully different effects on your body; there are also differences among vegetables grown in different circumstances (unsurprisingly, organic vegetables have more and more complex nutrients).

It reminded me of a conventional banana plantation I visited during a study abroad program in Costa Rica. The banana plants were tied to each other: bananas aren't actually trees, but a type of large herbaceous plant; the fruits of commercial banana plants are so large that they will actually knock the plant over if it isn't tied to something. The dirt was gray and clay-ey and looked dead. Nothing grew on the dirt in between the trees. The plantation was constantly sprayed with pesticides. I remember it as a place where the banishment of other life forms made it feel like a wasteland. An organic banana plantation just felt like a farm. Birds, insects, ground cover - stuff lived there.

Humans now know that we need biological complexity much more strongly than we can describe how it benefits us or even how it works at all. We're using very blunt tools to deal with a biological world that is totally awesomely complicated. In this context, some of our best resources are intuition and tradition. I find it paradoxically wonderful is that we often can't pinpoint why something works using science, because there are too many variables; but traditional methods of farming and eating often turn out, when analyzed, to work for scientific, provable, identifiable reasons. Sometimes not, like slash-and-burn, but even for slash-and-burn agriculture we can understand why it doesn't work: it's based on the assumption that more land will always be available. Partly because of The Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm really interested in understanding these valuable mental shortcuts we all seem to have.

Did I mention that you should read that book?

1. There's some privilege involved in being able to eat like this, but maybe less than you'd think.

June 22, 2007

Yards: now cheaper at the pump

In college I drank terrible alcohol, because it was free. I also developed a working philosophy that the crappiest beer I'd pay for was Yuengling Lager. Which is not that crappy, but pretty cheap, and thus holds a special place in the heart of any Philadelphian. If you want to order it at a bar, you ask for lager. No specification required.

The other beer we love in this city is Yards. It's "the oldest and only surviving brewery within city limits," and it's definitely one of those hipster revival kinds of deals. Whether you drink Yards or Yuengling might say something - or might not - about which part of Philadelphia you identify with. Yards is a little more expensive, more in the price range of something like Magic Hat - maybe not quite as exciting a brewery as Dogfish Head, which describes itself as "off-centered ales, for off-centered people" and is probably my favorite local brewery. But Yards gets the love, because it's from here, and because the Yards Variety Pack? It's exactly what you want for a party.

I went to the beer store today because we're having a party, and what do you know? Yards is no longer in the same price range as Magic Hat or Dogfish Head. It's a lot cheaper. Not as cheap as Yuengling, but Yards is now cheaper than Blue Moon. Yards is now cheaper than Corona. I asked the guy at the store about it, and he says Yards has started doing their own distribution locally. No distributor knocks off $4 a case.

People, this is fucking genius.

June 20, 2007

doing right

It's the last day of the school year. Thursday, the custodian on my hall asked why I work here. Why didn't I go somewhere else?

I started teaching because of this girl, call her Anastasia. It starts before that, of course, with the many accidents that got me leading wilderness courses in Philadelphia. But the teaching part, that's because of Stasia. Stasia is awesome. She's smart, she's motivated, she's responsible, she's got great interpersonal skills. Once, I saw her pull a kid aside at the beginning of a trip and calmly, politely ask him to stop making sexist comments because it made her angry. He stopped. Another time, she was the leader for the day on a trip. She was uncomfortable because she'd have to motivate people in the morning and she thought she'd be scattered if she was trying to pack herself. She asked me to wake her up half an hour early that morning. So when Stasia needed someone to tutor her for the SATs, of course I said yes.

She couldn't add fractions. Or multiply or divide or define them. She said the last time she'd learned any math was 8th grade. She had As and Bs in her math classes.

It still makes me angry to think about it, though I understand it a lot better now and I'm not as angry at her teachers as I was. But I started teaching in order to do right by Stasia and kids like her, kids who just need the chance to learn something, who are self-motivated enough to really do well but aren't getting what they need. That's why I stayed this year, even when it was hell. It's someone else this year, of course - a few someone elses, not many - and while there are a lot of kids I didn't do right by, I do think in the end I did right by Stasia. If she'd been in my class, she would know how to add fractions by now, and a hell of a lot more. And that's something. Not everything, but something.

June 18, 2007

who's classy?

I think my favorite ridiculous NYT article of the last month is the one about how important it is to save money. Anyone who's looked at compounding recently knows that time makes a huge difference - that's not what's ridiculous.1 But check out this question:

"How would you like to try to live on $40,000 a year in Washington or San Francisco?"

Once you regain your composure, let's talk about reality. Not even the reality of poverty - don't forget that the poverty line for an individual is $9,800, and that to be eligible for food stamps you can't make more than $12,744 a year - but the reality of college-educated, middle-class identified single (or married-no-kids) people like the ones that article speaks to. I live in Philadelphia - much cheaper than Washington or SF (where I've lived briefly), certainly much cheaper than NY - so my qualifications are somewhat limited. Except check it out: I lived on $11,000 for a year here, and I know people who've lived on less. That is less than a third of what the author describes: Washington, NYC, and SF are at most twice as expensive as Philly, and then only for housing. Food costs in the Bay Area are way less than anywhere on this coast. And I do not want to do it again, but I had a CSA share and I went out for brunch and I lived in a sweet apartment that I liked (and where the pipes froze every winter), and the next year I made about $15,000 and that was fine. I didn't pay for health insurance, and there my class status comes into play: my parents could afford to pay for my health insurance so they wouldn't end up bailing me out if I got seriously injured. But $40,000 a year? And you're wondering if you have enough to save a little? You need a reality check. 2

Some caveats. Abramorous pointed out, in heated discussion with Deb and me, that I didn't work in the business world, and that people who do so have expenses that I didn't. Clothes, meals out that are optional but will substantially benefit your career, haircuts, whatever. And that's true, but he and I disagree on how optional those things are. I work with people who make that much now, and let me tell you, people spend a lot of money on things they don't need. I know what most of those things cost, and really? $40,000 buys a lot of fancy haircuts. He also pointed out that before judging all these people so harshly, we should consider that some of them may have major expenses like student loans or health issues that aren't just for entertainment value. So, yes. If you make $40,000 and need to see a therapist or pay off student loans or travel cross-country to see your ailing family members, no judgment that the money's tight. But that's not the situation Damon Darlin envisions.

Fundamentally, this article reveals the class status of the people Darlin is writing for. The audience of the NYT Business section is upper-class, not middle-class - people who are used to having easy access to luxury goods and few or no limits on what they spend. And that's not reality for most people, so it's not surprising that when they make a semi-realistic salary, it pinches a little. But it should be surprising. We have a duty to empathy, a duty to try to understand how other people live and feel, and I think it's a pretty sad testament to our societal failure in that duty that people are so surprised by other people's situations.

Don't even get me started on governors going on food stamps. Not that it's bad, just the way they talk about it. Like no one knew! OMG!

1. What, you're not messing with compound interest functions in your spare time? You should try it. It's pretty enlightening. Try modeling your credit card balance and your savings on there.
2. I don't share the general squeamishness about talking about how much people make. In fact, I think openness about salaries is an important workplace fairness tool, and an important way of dealing with the weird class undercurrents of pretty much everything.

June 16, 2007

make me the drug czar, please

Over breakfast this morning, Abramorous and I revamped American drug policy. Our goal was to devise a system that restricted access to dangerous drugs without a lot of collateral damage, and to reduce the violence that characterizes the illegal drug trade. It's a harm reduction and consumer protection perspective, not a moral one, and it's based on the fact that 35 years of a drug war aimed at restricting the supply of drugs (thus driving up their prices and making them harder to get) have been an abysmal failure. Street prices of most drugs have been flat or falling since the 70s, with the exception of acid, which is now harder to get. Drug use rates fluctuate, but don't seem to have been affected much by drug war policy.1 Meanwhile, the federal government and the states spend millions of dollars jailing over 250,000 people for drug offenses, at great cost to those people's lives and families as well as to taxpayers, and with no discernible social benefit.

We need to get real and address the demand side. Start with drug education, which needs to be revamped to talk realistically about addiction as the real problem, and the fact that smoking pot is different from taking mushrooms is different from meth. Meth will ruin your life; smoking pot on weekends won't, outside of our stupid regulatory regime. Real, intensive drug education would address that and help folks analyze what risks they can live with and what they can't. We also need to provide tons more access to rehab - most rehab programs are full or expensive or both, and there's not nearly enough access even for people who want to get clean.

We also need to change the afore-mentioned stupid regulatory scheme. Here's a better one.

Class I drugs: Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana. Fully legal, limited restrictions on sale in the same vein as current restrictions on alcohol sale, age limit at 18, increased restrictions on advertising. Marijuana is a much smaller public health threat than alcohol: it's no more addictive, you can't overdose on it, it doesn't make people violent, it has long-term health risks for heavy use at about the same level. There's no real reason to regulate it more intensively than alcohol. So under the new plan you'd be able to buy it at liquor stores with proper ID. Also, drop the age for all of these to 18: the biggest consequence of having the drinking age at 21 is that 18-21-year-olds don't have the option of drinking in some of the best ways (e.g. having a delicious beer or two at a bar with some friends) and instead drink a lot more bad alcohol. Bump up the penalties for drunk/stoned driving, and the resources for getting home safely, since that's a big public health issue.

Class II drugs: peyote, mushrooms, LSD, Ecstasy, coca leaves (not cocaine), probably opium. These are drugs that have much more serious highs than pot/booze/tobacco, some of which I've been told (but not had confirmed) can trigger psych problems like schizophrenia (hallucinogens) or depression (E). Coca is only on this list because it can be used to manufacture cocaine - otherwise it would be Class I. Class II drugs would be fully legal to posses (maybe you have to be 21?), no advertising at all outside of trade publications that review different types, heavy licensing requirements to sell, high taxes. They should be available at pharmacies behind the counter (like Sudafed) or at liquor stores behind the counter. Exceptions to those restrictions for grow-your-own and religious use - restrictions should be on sale, not on use. Tax E more than hallucinogens, since the reason hallucinogens are not widely used is that they're freaky, not that they're pricey/unavailable, and even if they're legal they'll still be freaky. E, being pure pleasure, is much more susceptible to abuse. The point is not to make these drugs unavailable, but to provide barriers to access that slightly discourage heavy use.

The arguments for dropping the Class I age to 18 don't really apply to Class II drugs, because people substitute highs. You can see that now in the way people drink if they don't want the risk of using pot because it's illegal. With pot and booze widely available, there will be less incentive to circumvent the law because there will be substitute goods available. They're not fully equivalent, but I think people will substitute anyway.

Note that legalizing coca would be a huge benefit to Andean countries, where there are sustained, highly destructive campaigns to eradicate coca production by spraying fields with pesticides by air. These campaigns often hit the wrong fields or spray people and houses, and they also create environmental and agricultural damage. Legalizing coca, on the other hand, would allow farmers to grow a crop that's well-suited to marginal land and that has a significant role in traditional culture.

Class III drugs: cocaine, heroin, meth. These drugs are illegal to possess, manufacture, or sell, because they can ruin your life and they can do it pretty fast. However, ruining your own life and ruining someone else's life are two different things, so they call for different punishments. Get rid of possession charges: instead, anyone who possesses C-III drugs gets a ticket. This turns an expensive process of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration into something that actually generates revenue. It also addresses the public health issue of overdoses by taking away the fear that if you bring your ODing friend to the hospital, you'll get arrested.

Meanwhile, possessing anything over some specified limit gets you charged with dealing. Dealing is a mid-level offense if you're small-time and a hugely serious offense if you're big-time, have weapons, or use violence of any sort. This creates a major asymmetry in the market for these drugs, which I think would lead to small-time, non-violent dealers being able to have better success because their risks would be so much lower.

Since coca and opium are now C-II drugs and legally available, cocaine and heroin can now be manufactured in the US. This would break up the cartels and the dominance of violent gangs in that market by making it more like the situation with meth: any bozo with a basement could start manufacturing coke/heroin out of legal ingredients, and dealers wouldn't have to work with the sorts of people who can get illegal drugs past customs. Again, this opens up options for small-time, non-violent dealers while reducing the power of organized crime.

My dad points out that the most important part of this whole system is looking at the actual goals and the actual effects of drug policy, and drawing distinctions between different drugs and situations. Which is not at all what we do now.

Someone put me in charge of drug policy. Or maybe of everything.

1. Again, except for acid, which is less available and less used than it's been for 30 years. I'd attribute this partly to drug war policies that make it riskier to make, but also to the fact that most people making acid have Ph.D.s in chemistry and thus have a lot to risk, and that acid is kind of a niche drug. This isn't a model that works for other drugs.

June 11, 2007

on second thought

Now that I'm a little less angry about Giuliani's ginormous lie (partly because I'm angry about something else1), it occurs to me that this is exactly the sort of issue Plato was addressing in the Gorgias.

For those who are rusty on their Plato, the Gorgias (reproduced here, discussed here) is about rhetoric, and people who teach rhetoric. It starts out as an argument between Socrates and Gorgias about whether teachers of rhetoric are responsible for the misuse of what they teach by unscrupulous politicians. Halfway through, Gorgias, more or less defeated, hands the argument over to Callicles.

Callicles wins. Socrates gets him into a corner in which he must either accept that certain desires are more important than others, or lose his argument. Callicles tries to wiggle out of the corner, but ultimately, pinned down by Socrates, accepts all of the potentially unpleasant ramifications of his argument. Socrates objects that Callicles doesn't really think those things; Callicles feigns total sincerity. After Callicles has shown that he will say anything to win, the tone of the argument turns and Socrates is suddenly markedly less convincing.

Part of the point, we decided in that political theory seminar, was that if you are willing to say anything to win an argument, you're going to win the argument. Giuliani (like Bush and some others) seems to be literally willing to say anything to win an argument. In Giuliani's world, we had to go to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein kicked out the UN weapons inspectors; in reality, we had to pull the UN weapons inspectors out because we wanted to go to war with Iraq. Those sentences contain many of the same words, but they are not equivalent. Giuliani is willing to say either, depending on which will be most politically useful - right now he's betting that the false version is more politically useful, and, like Callicles, insisting that it's true.

I hope we can all agree that having candidates for president say things that are blatantly false is bad, but maybe not. If we do agree, we need to put some serious thought into how we prevent such lies. One way is to change the stakes, change the incentives: Giuliani, Bush, and the others don't necessarily want to lie (they may prefer not to or they may not care), but they've made the reasonable calculation that lying will not damage them politically. So, it needs to damage them politically. Blog coverage is a start, but someone has to have the job of keeping candidates honest. Wait, didn't someone have that job? Wasn't it newspaper reporters? Right, and they're not doing it. So now we have someone to pressure other than Giuliani. I don't know how best to do that. Again, blog coverage is a start but no more. An option that has occurred to me is to write gazillions of letters every time a candidate says something that is clearly factually untrue, and ask why the paper is not reporting on it. My question, oh luminaries of the lighthouse, is what else we can do to change the stakes.

1. All right, I have to go into detail. My principal decided, in her infinite wisdom, that on Friday the entire school should watch Stomp the Yard in the auditorium. I actually don't think that's a bad idea: it's the Friday of finals week, it's a half-day, very few people are actually doing any work. However. Four of my students were working on a project (a difficult project! about exponential functions! that required my help and a graphing calculator!), and wanted to finish it instead of watching the movie. So I said they could stay in my room, that I'd help them, and that whenever they finished I'd walk them down to the auditorium. I arranged for the teacher next door to keep an eye on my students in the auditorium. And for 45 minutes, until the principal found out, we had a great time and they learned quite a bit. When the principal discovered this example of student investment in learning, she screamed at me because I was not authorized to keep them out of the assembly. Yes, you read that correctly. I got in trouble for helping students learn.

She's like a tinpot dictator of a country too small to mean anything, so she has to search high and low for things to yell at people about. Like teachers helping kids learn.

June 7, 2007

things that make your jaw drop

1. Giuliani appears to be saying that Iran already has nuclear weapons. There's kind of nothing to say about that, other than "ARE YOU INSANE?" What remotely responsible person would say that WHILE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT? Anyone who is that out of touch with reality should be nowhere near the controls of the VERY REAL United States nuclear arsenal.

2. 100.3 Da Beat played this song while I was driving home today. Consumer lesbianism to the max. If you find yourself discussing it, please note that it is not by T-Pain, but rather by Ray L, who is on the same record label and has a very similar voice and sound. I might have something to say about mass-production if my brain hadn't just been fried by "I'd rather just join in, keep my girl and keep the other one too." BECAUSE WOMEN ARE POSSESSIONS. And lesbians? What they really want is YOUR DICK.

We are experimenting with capital letters. BECAUSE WE ARE ANGRY.

June 6, 2007

missing the point

I've never understood fancy restaurants with bad food. I've also never understood fancy restaurants that serve unnecessarily complicated dishes, have spectacularly glitzy dining rooms, and serve mediocre food. Stephen Starr, I'm looking at you. It's the restaurant as status symbol.

What people really don't need is to take that attitude home. That article describes a phenomenon - probably made up, as most NYT article phenomena are - in which "even a laid-back dinner with friends can be a challenge to their sense of self-worth." That, my friends, is absurd. (The article also mentions a couple who bring their own pickled ramps to dinner parties. Which, unless they're a gift, is just rude.) Where's the fun? You might eat some good food, but all that anxiety sucks the pleasure and beauty out of it. Not to mention that it's hard to see the point of a friendship where most of the way you interact is about showing off.

Now, you might say that this is a made up phenomenon, that there is no evidence of any such trend actually existing, and that therefore there's no need to write this at all. And you'd be right, mostly. Except that the use of practical items - houses, cars, food, money, clothes, pretty much anything you might actually need - as status symbols is a function and problem of status-oriented, hierarchical culture, and it's stupid. It leads to some serious resource over-consumption, being as it's the reason people have McMansions and Hummer limousines, but the bigger issue is that it's a crap way to relate to people. You can turn around what's high-status so it's a status symbol to buy organic (see last 10 years), but the underlying problem of egotism and self-aggrandizement remains a huge barrier to an egalitarian community. And did I mention it's no fun?

June 5, 2007

you get no education with one diphthong

I gave my finals today, which varied between lovely (all those sweet, funny juniors in first period, so focused with their calculators and notebooks) and miserable (all those 9th graders in fourth period screaming at me and each other and running around). There are almost two weeks of school left, though, which begs the question of why I'm giving my final today.

Well, because that's how my school does it. Grades close next week, a full week before the end of the school year, meaning that after Thursday less than half of the students at the school will show up. This set up, or some version thereof, is the norm in the whole district. In my school, the upshot will be that classes will be combined by floor or, possibly, the whole 3rd floor will be shut down and the 600-700 students who show up (out of 2000 on roll) will hang out in various classrooms and watch movies or play cards or god knows what. We haven't been officially informed of this, but it's going around through the grapevine of marginally competent teachers: once one of us finds out, we want to make sure the others know so we can plan for it. No one's telling the dude across the hall, because he doesn't plan anything anyway.

This, of course, would be absurd in a school or district that was actually organized around learning. Even though teachers, principals, and administrators have most of the skills to encourage learning, that's not the purpose they're putting them to. Those of you who were in the political theory seminar (or in the practical wisdom class) will remember that there's a neo-Aristotelian concept that describes this perfectly. The example I remember is the schmoctor: someone who has the skills of a doctor, but doesn't use them in a way that fits the telos,1 the greater meaning, of practicing medicine. Schmoctors might push cosmetic surgery or Botox, or they might come up with reasons for HMOs to deny care, or they might pursue drug company payments at their patients' expense; despite possessing all the skills of a doctor, they're not really doctors because their skills don't serve the fundamental meaning of medicine, which is to keep people healthy.

The same thing can happen in any profession with a telos, of course, and I think it's a pretty good way to understand urban schools. People get hired to be teachers, but they're actually schmeachers. That guy across the hall who doesn't plan anything anyway? His goal is not to have students learn, but to collect a paycheck for the minimum possible effort. It's not every person, but it does happen at every level. Principal, schmincipal. Superintendent, schmuperintendent. Et cetera, all the way up to the "CEO" of the district. That's the fundamental bad faith of urban education, summed up in a single diphthong.2

1. One reason I'm writing this post is that searching google for 'schmoctor telos' gets you nothing. And that - well, let's just say it's not right.
2. I know it's actually not a diphthong, because schm- is a set of consonants. But I don't know what it's called. I'd be grateful to learn.

June 4, 2007

aw, shit!

After school can be awful. I hold detention in my room, and it's hot, and any kid who was enough of a pain to get detention is probably enough of a pain to be irritating during detention.

So I let Nia and Luisa go early today. And Mon and Lona came to work on their math project. And it was perfect.

Did I mention that I took 6 of my juniors (and 1 sophomore I don't teach) on an Outward Bound course last week? I didn't? My bad. They were total rockstars, and did things like wake up at 5:30, pack the whole camp by 6 am, play Big Booty for half an hour, and hike a mile and a half before 7 am. Lisa had kind of a life-changing experience, maybe, and she's applying for a two-week course this summer. Anyway, Mon and Lona were on the trip, and they, like all the other students, were obsessed with calling me by my first name. At one point one of them said my name, and when I turned around she was giggling like crazy. "I just wanted to say it."

Now Mon and Lona call me North after school, or rather by my actual name. I don't really know how to express how much I love the relationship we have now, after a year of struggle and learning and 5 days of Outward Bound. Today, they spent two and a half hours in my stuffy, irritating classroom under the fluorescent lights working on exponential functions. I alternately helped them, read the newspaper online, and tried to write the final I'm giving tomorrow; when I couldn't explain something to Mon because I couldn't understand what he was thinking, Lona took over.

Lona'd been stuck at one point, but she got spectacularly unstuck, and it was like a lightbulb went on. I could practically see the neurons connecting. Later, she was working on a problem and figured out the pattern for a pretty complicated exponential function involving antibiotics, and when I confirmed that she was right, she jumped out of her chair and ran into the hallway and started dancing in the doorway, and then came back and screamed,

"Yo, this shit will blow your fucking mind, dawg!"
Ten minutes later I showed her the trick with the 9s table, where if you're trying to multiply a 1-digit number by 9 you count the number that's not 9 on your fingers and bend that finger down. The number of fingers before the bent finger is the 10s digit, and the number of fingers after the bent finger is the 1s digit. A simple little trick, but she'd never seen it before. She nearly fell out of her chair.
"Awwww shit! Math is fucking amazing!"

Names have been changed. But you knew that.