February 28, 2008

another use of numbers

Obama just passed the million donor mark. Another way of thinking about this is that 1 of every 300 Americans (not American adults) has donated to the Obama campaign. Another way to make sense of this is to say that about 1 of every 234 Americans over 16 has donated to Obama's campaign. Maybe the best way, since you have to be 16 to donate.

That is a stunning statistic, though I don't have much to compare it with (other than the number of people in jail as listed in the post below). Obama's on track to potentially have 1% of the US population actually giving him money by November 4. That's, that's, I don't know what that is except great. A great use of basic math.

US criminal justice: still racist

Not to mention just plain bad news and a waste of people and time.

The NYT reports that 1 in 100 US adults is in prison (actually slightly more - 1 in 99.1). Worse, it's 1 in 15 black adults, and 1 in 9 black men between 20 and 34. I don't really know how to say how appalling that is. People, it is really really really bad. 23% of black men between 20 and 29 are in contact with the criminal justice system at any given time (cite: Sentencing Project). For white men the same age, it's 6.2%. More depressing information and links to actual scholarly research at Crooked Timber. I don't have anything like enough energy to talk about how totally fucked up things are at school about this.

To me, this is why it matters whether presidential candidates have used drugs. The core of the issue is this: do the recent candidates who've used drugs - George Bush, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Barack Obama - think they should have been arrested and jailed? If not, why the hell do they want to arrest and jail African Americans, especially poor African Americans, for exactly what they did? More to the point, why the hell do we accept that bullshit from them? Obama is not clean on this score, people. Despite having advocated decriminalizing pot in his Senate run, despite supporting prisoners' rights and reintegration programs and lower sentences both in word and deed - despite, in other words, being probably our best hope - he accepts this disparity in consequences, at least in public. Based on his actions, I'd guess he cares about this stuff personally - this is the man with the brass balls to stand up for the rights of accused criminals with no public reward - but he too is constrained by the 'acceptable' political rhetoric. And we all put up with it.

A nation of laws, my ass. Not if you're poor and black.

February 27, 2008

social science research

1. A lovely article by someone I'm reading in my grad school ed policy class about the limits of social science research: to wit, the data are unreliable and crude, the rules and structures governing the system don't stay the same across place and time, and randomized field trials are usually impossible. And yet I still want to get a Ph.D. in social science.

2. A consequently unreliable social science article about the correlation between socioeconomic segregation and achievement. I'll read it in more depth and perhaps have more to say about it later. On an anecdotal basis, I think that at my school the high concentration of people who expect little mainstream economic success and thus little need for academic success works to reinforce a prevailing norm of underachievement. The same students, in an atmosphere where most of their peers were focused on achievement, might behave very differently.

Being sick apparently makes me write.

February 26, 2008

someone is wrong on the internet

I managed to get myself involved in one of those irritating blog-comment arguments over on I Blame the Patriarchy. I was defending the idea that it was possible to make an ethically informed decision to eat meat. If you want to read the stuff I said, I'm North. It's a perfect example of this phenomenon.

It's funny how, in this kind of argument, people act like family farms just don't exist. They're gone! Jude Becker, Joel Salatin, and the Fishers are a myth! Your only options are mass-produced meat or mass-produced vegetarianism!

That would be depressing. Luckily it's not true, and the more people remember it's not true, the less true it is. Like fairies.

February 24, 2008

US health insurance: still a bad deal

Further evidence that a national health system is the way to go.

drug policy revisited

I talked a while ago about a different option for drug policy. Recently Argentina has had an influx of cheap cocaine, which has had devastating social consequences at least according to the NYT). Guess what? Cocaine is bad for you! The anti-drug activists in the community they profile seem to want more restrictions and enforcement on drug use, which, to me, confirms that having totally legal hard/addictive drugs is probably a bad idea.

Reading the article, I questioned my assumption that having the facilities for processing a drug in the US would improve things. But a couple of things: we already have a situation in which people are adulterating cocaine and mixing it with dangerous additives to produce a cheap high (a major issue cited with paco, and here with crack). Second, getting rid of powerful and violent cartels benefits both people here (though I'm not sure how much) and, more obviously/significantly, people in developing countries. We could have fair trade coca! Cooperatives instead of cartels. Maybe also corporations, but I'd guess they're not worse than cartels.

February 19, 2008

if you eat this you will be happy

This was so good it made me want to call everyone I knew and tell them how amazing it was. So good that when my dad called as I was finishing one I waited to talk to him until I was done thinking about the last bite. My really amazing girlfriend made this really amazing dessert and came up with the really amazing topping. You will be so happy you made it.

Maple custards
2 cups cream
1/2 cup maple syrup (or maple sugar)
6 egg yolks

Preheat the oven to 325.

Warm the cream. Stir the syrup or sugar into the egg yolks. Mix in a little of the warm cream, then mix in the rest of the cream, stirring constantly. The recipe says to strain into a pitcher, but you should just pour it into a liquid measuring cup. Pour into six little ramekins and arrange them on a baking dish. Heat some water, put the baking dish in the oven, and pour the hot water in the baking dish so it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Lay a sheet of foil on top to lightly cover them. Recipe says: bake for about 40 minutes or until the custards are set in a ring about 1/2 inch wide around the outside edge. They should still be soft in the center.

Make this dessert with the best ingredients you can get. There are only 3 ingredients and the taste is really subtle and comples, so it's worth buying farm eggs and super-quality cream and dark dark maple syrup (grade C even, since maple syrup grades are based on color not quality). We get unpasteurized double cream which is kind of like a revelation in dairy fat.

The recipe is from Chez Panisse Desserts, by Lindsey Remolif Shere, which is worth owning if you like dessert. Which is to say, worth owning.

Then, since you live on the East Coast and have local cranberries available, make a compote for the top. The Gardener came up with this.

2 cups of cranberries
2 tablespoons of sugar, about - or to taste
a little port or red wine or something

Heat the cranberries in a little pan with a little water or port. Put the sugar in - you can put less and then adjust it. You want it tart so that it contrasts with the creamy nutty sweetness of the pudding. Keep simmering the cranberries - not too much water, let them dry out so it's cranberries not sauce, add port and water as needed - until they're ready. Put a spoonful on each pudding before you serve them. Grate a tiny bit of orange zest on everything.

Have I mentioned how amazingly delicious this is?

February 17, 2008


Another big beef recall: 143 million pounds. This time because slaughterhouse employees were caught on film being mean to sick cows so they ended up in the meat supply (bad idea for health reason).

I totally teared up talking to the Gardener about this, partly because it's sad for the cows, partly because it's sad for the people, partly because this so not the ok bargain with an animal.

Partly because the ground beef in our freezer comes from Daryl, who would never ever be mean to a cow, and sometimes I forget that that's the exception.

February 15, 2008

She's drafting an autobiographical essay to apply for Upward Bound. It's lunch. I'm sitting with her, reading her essay: the first part is about moving here from Sierra Leone. I ask her to tell me how things were different there, see if we can put it in the essay. You have to hear this in her voice: big round vowels, all the rs dropped, liquid, Sierra Leone by way of the American inner city.

"Of course. There was more kids. The walls - you know - like that sliding thing in Mr. D's room? Like a door but you slide it out of the way? Like that. You have to get there early. If you was late you would have to sit on the floor. I had - like this, like a desk, but made out of board - that I brung from home. If your people had money they could give you one. You didn't learn as much. There wasn't opportunity, like there is here.

"If you was late you would get beaten. No one would cuss at the teachers. You just - no one did. All the kids want to be in school. You don't want to have the life of your mother and your father. If you can't pay your school fees, and maybe you get kicked out of the school, then you would be selling things, like cold water in plastic. Roasted peanuts, candy, anything, just to help your mother pay the fee. Or then maybe you go back and you get kicked out for two weeks - some of the teachers understand. Sometimes a principal understand and they let you have an extra week to pay.

"It was hard to get used to the kids. When I came here I was surprised how the kids act, like they don't care about they education. Well, sometime I act like that too now.

"Sometime I think I want to go back to Africa. You get your education here, you work for a little bit, you can go back and have plenty. Build a house - it's not even that much. But my mother she say get your education here. If I go back to Africa I be spoiled - no mother, no father, live with my grandmother in the big house. I be just like my sisters and brothers."

She wants to be a prosecutor, like on Law & Order, or maybe a counselor to help teens and married people.

February 14, 2008

question of the day (Valentine's Day special)

(from across the room, 3 students:)

"What's your definition of love?"

Hilarious discussion ensued re: difference between loving someone and being in love; whether you can be in love with your mom; whether Mon is in love with his mom because no girl is going to come between them; the relationship between love and sex; the concept of attraction.

I love teaching seniors.

February 13, 2008

question of the day

"How do you spell 'run'?"

February 10, 2008

character, integrity, peace

I really want to like Lawrence Lessig's endorsement of Obama: all about moral courage and integrity. Except mostly he talks about how Clinton lacks them, which is kind of disappointing: Obama, not Clinton, is exceptional, and talking about how Clinton has the same problems as all other politicians isn't a great reason to vote for Obama. By implication, yes, but I wish Lessig had talked about the details of ways that Obama is different.

And then come the last two minutes, at which point he starts talking about the international symbolism of an Obama presidency. While he says that Obama's original opposition to the war would shape people's perceptions, he also has this long section on 'seeing the photograph of this man' which, to me, seems very much like a race-trumps-gender argument. Which, huh? There's a similarly compelling narrative to be found about Clinton's picture.

February 6, 2008

also, wow

Read Michael Chabon's endorsement of Obama. Not for a reason to prefer Obama to Clinton, not really, but for what it says about our country.

"The point of Obama's candidacy is that the damaged state of American democracy is not the fault of George W. Bush and his minions, the corporate-controlled media, the insurance industry, the oil industry, lobbyists, terrorists, illegal immigrants or Satan. The point is that this mess is our fault. We let in the serpents and liars, we exchanged shining ideals for a handful of nails and some two-by-fours, and we did it by resorting to the simplest, deepest-seated and readiest method we possess as human beings for trying to make sense of the world: through our fear. America has become a phobocracy."


capitalism + regulatory capture

Wachovia apparently continued doing business with some fraudulent telemarketing companies (the kind of people who try to get your bank account information over the phone) after they'd heard many, many complaints about them. For the obvious reason - "We are making a ton of money from them." Partly in fines for all those returned checks.

What's interesting about this is that Wachovia's positions is perfectly sensible, within the assumption that companies should maximize only profit. The people who were asleep at their jobs here were the regulators:

"In the last three years, government agencies have sued several companies accused of routing telemarketing thefts through at least nine banks, including Wachovia, the largest company named in those lawsuits. However, Wachovia and most other banks accused of involvement in similar frauds have never been publicly fined or prosecuted by federal regulators for aiding telemarketing criminals."

Regulated companies, etc, in the US tend to have significant power and negotiating ability with the regulators, a situation referred to as regulatory capture (i.e. regulators serve the interests of those they regulate). One consequence of regulatory capture is that situations like this need to be resolved in the courts because they can't be prevented or addressed by enforcement agencies.

Best way, for my money, to reduce litigation and related expenses is to have effective regulation. Prevent problems or fix them through enforcement - then no one needs to sue.

February 5, 2008

Super Duper Obama

Anyone who thinks Obama is all hype and no game (all hat and no cattle, ...) needs to read this blog post.

I am impressed beyond words that Obama pushed for videotaping police interrogations, and managed to make it happen. To quote the article quoted there:

"1. Obama was completely right, and on an issue directly relevant to the more recent debates about torture. Taping interrogations is an issue that really only has one legitimate side, since there's no reason to think it prevents any true confessions, while it certainly prevents false confessions (over and above the legal and moral reasons for disapproving of police use of "enhanced interrogation methods").

2. Pursuing it had very little political payoff, as evidenced by the fact that Obama has not (as far as I know) so much as mentioned this on the campaign. Standing up for the rights of accused criminals in a contemporary American legislature requires brass balls.

3. Getting it through required both courage and skill. The notion that Obama is "too nice" to get things done can hardly survive this story: he won't face tougher or less scrupulous political opponents than the self-proclaimed forces of law and order. Yes, in this case the change was helpful to the cause of crime control, since every innocent person imprisoned displaces a guilty person. But that didn't make the politics of it any easier."

Can anyone really imagine Hillary Clinton doing something like this? I will vote for her with a happy heart and a clean conscience if she's the nominee, but Obama's got substance and style both. Also, the Jesse Dylan/will.i.am video gives me goosebumps.

February 3, 2008

NCLB is a bad law

There are actually good things about NCLB. The requirement that schools and districts disaggregate their data by race and income level is awesome, as is the requirement that those subgroups count when districts evaluate the data. It's underfunded, but that's, well, that's education. It's true - John Kerry said it - that "Resources without reform is a waste of money, but reform without resources is a waste of time." But there's not a candidate out there who really wants to fund education the way it needs to be funded. So that's just normal badness, not the extra special badness that would prompt me to write something here.

NCLB is bad because it makes schools spend many hours and great expense collecting basically useless data. Every state gets to make its own test, so the test data aren't comparable. As if that weren't bad enough, the disaggregation all happens differently. Disaggregation is when schools and districts report the scores of subgroups (race/ethnic groups, income categories, special ed), which they are required to do; but if a school has less than a certain number of students in a subgroup, they don't have to disaggregate that subgroup. It's a good system, for student privacy and fairness reasons: if a school has only two students in subgroup x, it doesn't make sense for the school to fail that round of testing because 50% of them (i.e. one student) failed their test, nor is it cool to publish the information that one of the two students failed, since other people in the area can likely figure out who it was. So, ok. For subgroups below size n, you don't have to report the scores of those students. Except wait. What is n? Do we have a national number? Of course not! States set numbers between 5 and 100.

Similarly, every state has to report on its persistently dangerous schools. As of June 2004, there were 38 schools so designated in the whole country. 27 of those are in Philadelphia. None were in Chicago, Detroit, or LA. Artifact of different measurement systems or accurate assessment of reality? I report, you decide.

Every kid between third grade and eighth grade is taking achievement tests, and every district in the country is collecting statistics on violence; this is potentially one of the greatest boons to educational research ever. Except the data are trash, so no go.

Much of this information comes from No Child Left Behind, a reasonably neutral, non-evaluative primer on the law by Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli. Hess works at the American Enterprise Institute, Petrilli was a former Bush appointee, but the book is basically an explanation of the law's requirements and how states are dealing with them. I'm reading it for class.