March 31, 2008

buy organic

I keep meaning to write about how I look at food in the grocery store and decide what to eat (which may or may not have any relevance to your life - mostly, Em asked me to, and I said I would), but this story is the kind of thing that makes me so uncomfortable buying conventional produce, especially out of season. It's an article about songbirds dying or having severe neurological problems from high concentrations of pesticides used on produce in Latin America. Setting aside my strong suspicion that anything that kills birds is probably bad for my long-term health, it's a serious downer to sit down to dinner and start thinking about poisoned songbirds.

Similarly, I can't buy conventional strawberries anymore because I just think about sea otters having immune problems and being poisoned by toxic algal blooms from all the pesticides and fertilizers dumped on the strawberry fields outside Watonville. So, no strawberries since last spring, except maybe at a catered event or something where I didn't buy them. I can't wait for May, when I get to have them again.

Addendum: The article also specifically mentions organic coffee and bananas as priorities. Having seen coffee and banana plantations firsthand, I agree. A conventional banana plantation is a horrible place - dead land made of eroding grey clay with plants so weak they have to be tied to guy lines to stay up. The organic plantation I visited was like a very managed forest, with leaf litter and little plants and other live things. Shade-grown coffee is especially important because it's a cash crop that allows farmers to maintain forest cover, which is just unbelievably ecologically valuable, especially in the tropical regions where coffee grows.

March 28, 2008

What you get for ... $3 trillion

You get a lousy, mismanaged war.

I meant to post this the day after it was published, but somehow forgot (and in the meantime got the book for my birthday, but haven't read it). Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize-winning economist, takes a stab at the messy, corrupt accounting of the war, and, well, it's an oyster carnival.

I guess I should stop being surprised.

not 'how much', but 'for whom'

I read the title of this article and thought, exactly! Which is always satisfying. Title in question: "Parties Differ on Whom Economic Aid Should Help."

The Republican Party has pretty clearly abandoned its efforts at non-intervention in the economy: instead, its policies are trying to support 'markets' - which often means, big players in markets - instead of individuals. These supports are often framed as 'loans' or 'tax cuts' but are no less direct aid to a specific segment of the population than welfare is. A well-known example is the home mortgage interest tax deduction, which lets home-owners reduce their tax payment because of the money paid in interest on a mortgage. This is a fairly extensive subsidy, worth quite a bit of money, but because it is framed as a tax exemption (rather than a transfer payment) and because it mostly affects relatively well-off people (since you only get it if you itemize your tax deductions, which few low-income people do) who own homes (and is more valuable the higher your income), it's not framed as government assistance in the same way that Section 8 housing vouchers are.

The credit-crisis aid is a similar situation: Democrats frame their argument in terms of assisting individuals who bought homes; Republicans have defended huge loans to Wall Street - which is a big subsidy to banks and firms that might otherwise go bankrupt or be unable to secure credit. At the consumer spending and recession level, the Bush tax rebates are similar to the home mortgage interest tax deduction: assistance for people who pay taxes on income, not for the unemployed or very poor, and becoming more valuable (to a point) as income increases. Democratic proposals, by contrast, mostly focused on higher transfer payments.

The Republicans like to claim that they're not providing government assistance - that they're working for small government - when they reduce taxes. The truth is, it's still assistance, whether by giving people money directly or reducing the amount of money they have to give you. But there are three things about tax-based assistance that are very different from transfer payments:

  • Assistance provided as a tax break systematically advantages wealthier people, who get a greater reduction in their taxes (and, because of the tax rate goes up as income goes up, often a greater percentage, not just absolute, reduction).
  • Because family wealth confers significant advantages on children and young adults (see the problematic but very interesting The Hidden Cost of Being African-American), even a tax/benefit code that does not systematically advantage the wealthy will perpetuate and perhaps increase inequality just by allowing families to pass on advantage. Neutral is not neutral.
  • Tax breaks are not stigmatizing or difficult to receive. You just do your taxes. No showing up at the office or waiting in line or having a different way to pay for things from the other people at the store or needing to find a Section 8 - friendly landlord.

Assistance is assistance. It's just who you help. If you're Bush or McCain, you focus on banks and people who pay a lot in taxes. If you're Clinton or Obama, you focus on people who make less. The money still gets handed out.

March 24, 2008

a more perfect union

A little before 10 pm on a school night, when I really should have been asleep, I started playing this speech. I'd read it, and heard snippets; the Gardener hadn't heard it at all. The first thing she said was that she didn't think she could pay attention to the speech right then and maybe she could listen to it later. Then the speech started. Then she sat down in a black folding chair, wrapped a blanket around herself, and stared at the screen for the next 37 minutes and 26 seconds. We could not have stopped the speech, any more than we could have photosynthesized. It might be the best speech I've ever heard. No politician has ever talked about race honestly in my hearing before; there's a single off moment, when he talks about Israel, but the rest is extraordinary. It is simultaneously about reality and about ideals, about accepting pain and messiness and working towards the best in each person.

It's worth watching, even if you've already read the transcript. The New York Times has better quality video and a linked transcript. It's worth sending to everyone you know. It's worth watching again.

paging califloridans

This is one of those pieces of legislative arcana that has the potential to be bizarrely meaningful in the lives of many people. It's called Farm Flex, and Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, wrote about it in the NY Times about a month ago. (I'm late. Shut up.) Our current farm policy, which is massively fucked up in about 15 dimensions, directly subsidizes commodity growers for I think 5 crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. I'm going to resist the intense temptation to complain about these subsidies in ways irrelevant to the topic at hand, and note instead that various other crops are subsidized indirectly (for example, by building expensive dams that provide cheap water - now go read Cadillac Desert). The direct subsidy crops, though, carry a specific penalty if you switch off commodities to, say, grow fruits and vegetables. A farmer who makes that switch has 3 costs: loss of the subsidy for the acres in question; a fine based on the value of the crops grown; and future loss of the subsidy for the acres in question.

The first cost is reasonable, even in crazy commodity-subsidy world: if you're not growing commodities, it makes sense not to be subsidized to grow commodities. But the second cost makes it very difficult for farmers who switch to make any money, and the third cost is a huge future risk. Farmers who would switch are mostly not in viable parts of the country for large-scale production to compete with, say, California - the climate in Iowa wouldn't work - so they'd be supplying local markets. That's what makes this a nationally meaningful policy issue. There's a bill - Farm Flex - to cut out the second and third penalties, to make it more possible for farmers to try food production, and it's a good bill. It's pretty dumb that the federal government is actively protecting large-scale ultra-commercial growers just at the time when people are really interested in local food.

The opponents to Farm Flex are mostly California/Florida-based businesses, which makes it your job, my California/Florida-based friends, to call your member of Congress, or, if the bill makes it to the Senate, your Senator. Texans should also call. And everyone else.

You can know when that's happened by looking at this nifty widget, which I just discovered. (OK, never mind, the widget isn't working. You'll just have to google H.R. 1371 yourself.)

March 17, 2008

blur: gender

It was interesting to read Elizabeth Weil's article about single-sex education immediately after reading Women Don't Ask (a book about gender and negotiation that I very much recommend, for reasons I'm about to go in to). Weil splits the world of one-gender education advocates into "two camps: those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs." The first camp relies primarily on some very sketchy brain and development research - that boys and girls hear differently, smell differently, draw different kinds of pictures, prefer different temperatures - and comes to the conclusion that boys will learn better actively, and girls will learn better through interpersonal connections.

Some of this research purports to control for socialization because it is done with young children - interesting in light of the fact that parents describe boy and girl babies differently (girls as more frail, boys as more robust) when there is no discernible medical difference. Women Don't Ask also cited one study with very interesting implications for research design: young children who are offered the choice of playing with 'boy' toys or 'girl' toys (trucks/dolls, etc) make the gender-appropriate choice when an observer is in the room, but disregard gender when they think they're not being observed. There are a couple of other, similar studies that suggest that such choices persist (women make higher demands in negotiation letters when they think no one will know if the author of the letter is male or female). When the research that suggests that boys and girls draw different pictures or have intrinsically different preferences was done, was there an observer in the room? Was that observer's gender considered? The research the 'intrinsic difference' folks are using to justify single-sex education is not only a very crude sorting tool (great example of this in the article from Giedd), but also has serious observer bias problems.

Which leads me to the same damn conclusion I always make about gender: we don't know a damn thing about what's innate and what's learned. Maybe a damn thing. But not more than that.

two unrelated statements

Darth Vader, Richard III, and Hamlet are the names of my grandmother's stove, dishwasher, and refrigerator, respectively.

I still love California and I never want to leave.

March 11, 2008

bad math education

Student: "I don't want to understand, I want a calculator!"

Me, in my head: "This is why you and I don't get along."

March 10, 2008

good math education

In case some of the two or three people who read this blog don't also read Crooked Timber, I highly recommend Lane Kenworthy's post on how to visually display income inequality levels over the last 40ish years. To me, this is a more mathematically complex version of what I would like students to be learning in math classes: how to represent real-world information in abstract terms so that the information is communicated clearly and can be understood and analyzed better than it could with a verbal description. Kenworthy also articulates the representational choices he made, notes other possibilities, and explains why he showed the information as he did.

If you can do that - which practically none of my students, and damn few adults I know can do - you're less vulnerable to bad data or misleading claims in news accounts; and you can have some idea how to break down public information to find what's noteworthy about it. Of course, Kenworthy's a professional, so maybe he shouldn't count.

If I could have a couple of ideas stuck in every math student's head, here's what they'd be:

1. Numbers only mean something in context, and that context has to be meaningful. If 121 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans committed or charged with murder, is that great or catastrophic news given the general homicide rate? Given the homicide rate for veterans of previous wars? Given the homicide rate among non-combat veterans? Nobody knows from that article. As a subset of this, you need to read the context and justification for any data - including rates - that you read. Should incarceration rates be of US adults? Of all residents?

2. Dollars are an arbitrary unit whose value varies. Same with other currency. You need to adjust for inflation to understand any economic data.

3. Translating real-world information into mathematical terms always involves some simplification. It's important to check what simplifications happen, and whether you buy into them. Do you count someone as unemployed if they're not looking for work because they got sick of it? Current answer: no. What if they're working part-time and want a full-time job? Current answer: still no. These simplifications are incredibly helpful, but they can also be really tricky.

March 3, 2008

Christianity rubs off on Judaism

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel probably doesn't think I'm Jewish. My mom converted (from nothing in particular) when I was 4 - she had me converted by an Orthodox rabbi at the same time - and we're not all that observant. Ahem. As in my parents make pork for a living. The Rabbinate, controlled by ultra-Orthodox Jews, has come to question the Jewishness of non-observant Jews. They've started demanding proof, and not accepting testimony from most American rabbis. Even Orthodox rabbis are suspect, since the ultra-Orthodox feel that if you're not observant, you're not a legitimate convert - conversion, in their eyes, entailing a commitment to following Jewish law. They're not really concerned that they'll exclude some 'legitimate' non-observant Jews who just can't prove their Jewishness, because in their minds those people have given up their Jewishness.

What's interesting about these restrictions - aside from the way that the lack of civil marriage leaves mixed or Jewish couples in an unmarriageable limbo disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany's anti-miscegenation laws - is that they don't seem very Jewish to me. Judaism isn't really an ethnicity or a religion, though it straddles both. It's a tribe. You can be adopted in, but you can't ever really leave, not matter how much you want to. Your piety, while relevant to your relationships with God and your grandmother, isn't a factor in deciding whether you're Jewish. Historically, once you're Jewish you're Jewish. Become a Catholic priest and eat pork for every meal? Still Jewish.

You can, however, leave Christianity and Islam, both newer religions that use faith, not family, as their primary marker for belonging.

Not only that, but Jews have a several-thousand-year history of arguing about exactly what Jewish law says and should be, and how important it is to follow them. That's how we stopped with the stoning for adultery and a bunch of other stuff, and that's why the ultra-Orthodox may be slightly (but only slightly) less hypocritical than the Christian biblical literalists who aren't practicing Levirate marriage and selling all they own to follow Jesus. The ultra-Orthodox at least have several thousand years of Talmudic debate to rely on for any departures from the behavior prescribed in the Torah. But the existence of that debate, in and of itself, tells us the ultra-Orthodox don't have a monopoly on how to be Jewish.

I think we should start telling the ultra-Orthodox they're philosophically assimilated.

you know I'm right

You can read about it here.

March 2, 2008

the bully pulpit

It's things like this that make the prospect of an Obama presidency so damn exciting. He gets up in front of an African-American crowd, lectures about parenting and education, and they cheer him like mad. He's got the ability to tell people they need to do something and make them feel great about it. So Obama with the bully pulpit could actually inspire people to change aspects of their own lives.

You should read the article I linked to. It's hilarious. And awesome. I got it from here.

The whole thing just makes me want to have a TV, so I can watch events.