May 31, 2008

problems with industrial farming, in brief

The New York Times has an op-ed out about industrial animal farming. It's actually very good - it hits, briefly, all the major problems with the meat system, from rural impoverishment to labor exploitation to antitrust issues to environmental damage to antibiotic resistance. You might not actually know what all of the problems were from reading it, but any given sentence could act as a starting point to learn more about why, exactly, our food system is so totally fucked.

May 30, 2008


I appear to have stepped into bizarro-world somehow. My students came up from lunch screaming and crowding around my door - I don't have a class right now - because, get this, they were arguing about whether someone had done a math problem correctly. I opened the door and 8 students flooded in and started screaming at me and each other - just trying to be heard, not aggressively - to demand that I a) referee the dispute about this particular order of operations problem and b) listen to the 10th and 11th graders claim mathematical superiority over the 9th graders. Following which a number of students demanded copies of the final review packet with which to demonstrate their claimed prowess.

Students are sneaking out of class to get math problems! The world has gone mad!

May 29, 2008

when cultural distance is horrifying

A student of mine - a really really nice Jamaican kid - said, "He's homo!" in class. Which, of course, triggered the predictable lecture on how there's nothing wrong with being gay and the real problem is that the other kid is touching him without his permission, which no one should do, gay straight female male etc.

"Where I'm from, it's different. If you have two brothers, and one is gay, they kill him. No one act gay because they know they'll be killed."

What do you think about that?

"I think it's good to kill them. It's the rule and I follow the rule. Besides they give you money."

As an afterthought, he adds, "We don't have no problem with lesbians, though."

May 28, 2008

a new way to waste time.

Go play Budget Hero.

In addition to being totally entertaining - if, like me, you're easily entertained - it's surprisingly instructive to see the costs of various things in context. Arts education? Small change. A good example of how a game is a great way to communicate some kinds of information.

My personal budget reduced debt from 38% of GDP to 16% of GDP, provided universal health care, capped carbon emissions, and generally made the world awesome. Somebody call the White House. Actually, scrap that, better wait til they care.

(from the Freakonomics blog)

more inherent problems with poverty

While I was home last weekend - digression: it was so great - a friend saw the post about stress causing asthma and pointed me to this Financial Times article which discusses the effects of stress via low social status on developing brains. Quick summary: it's bad. This suggests to me that if Teach for American and other education policy people are interested in eliminating the gap between rich and poor in educational attainment, they're going to have to eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) the low social status and stress associated with poverty.

This also suggests one possible source of the Scandinavian 'bumblebee economy' (discussed, very briefly, in the Iceland article - basically, high taxes and high growth!): the Scandinavian states - with their excellent social services, low inequality, and strong safety net - more efficiently use and develop the increasingly valuable mental capacity of their citizens. This could also explain some of the findings on Sweden that Lane Kenworthy recently discussed.

As an aside, he writes about school choice in Sweden being a surprise for the left - I'd argue that Sweden in this situation doesn't hold lessons for the US, because inequality is so much lower that the risks of school choice are correspondingly lower. My concern about school choice is that it will leave low-income/low-status students stranded in schools that get worse and worse; if there is less social inequality, I would similarly expect less inequality in educational options.

May 22, 2008

how to mock Clinton without being sexist

This is clever, hilarious, and depressing. In other words, Saturday Night Live at its best.

(from the Monkey Cage)

May 21, 2008

new life plan

I'm moving to Iceland. Next week, if possible. Who's in?

May 20, 2008

micro music review

Almost a month ago at probably the best yard sale ever - fancy little bowls, champagne flutes, lamps for $2, and two weeks later a free Kitchen Aid - I bought a box of tapes for the last tape player in the country, which lives in the dashboard of my car. One of them was Lucinda Williams Lucinda Williams, from 1988. She's up there on my list of all time favorite musicians (and in fact is my stock answer when my students ask, on the bet that they haven't heard of her and in the hope that maybe someone has) and the whole album is great because you can hear where her sound is going but it's more straightforwardly country, not how she sings now. Also it turns out that she wrote two songs I first heard other people sing: Passionate Kisses, which is on Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come On Come On and is a staple of family road trips, and Crescent City, which Emmylou Harris sings on Cowgirl's Prayer and which I have always loved. I love it even more now - partly because the way Lucinda sings it you're practically living the whole song, Crescent City and zydeco right up ahead and the first thing you do is go to your mama's house in Mandeville and then your brother takes you out to the bar and the weather's hot but the beer is cold. Emmylou sings it more like a party, no homesick ache underneath to tell you that even if you make it home, it's never really the same. And that's the other reason I love Crescent City more than I did when I was a teen-ager itching to get out of town.

Everybody's had a few,
Now they're talking about who knows who,
I'm going back to the Crescent City,
where everything is still the same.

I go home to the Midwest on Friday. I know exactly how Lucinda feels.

health and poverty

We usually think of poverty's contribution to ill health as being something to do with the ability to afford a particular diet or to get preventive care. Some new research, written up in the BBC suggests that stress during pregnancy increases the baby's risk of asthma, and amplifies the effect of other risk factors. Poverty is certainly a risk factor for asthma. Even absent the material stressors involved in being poor, having low social status relative to the people around you leads to stress; and poor people feel more pain, which is its own stressor. Here's poverty making people sick, not just preventing them from getting the material resources they need to be healthy.

Not like having more/better stuff wouldn't help. All the links along the side of the BBC article are to material factors that affect asthma risk, like pollution and breast-feeding (a time resource) and maternal diet.

May 19, 2008

humans who don't look human

Really interesting post about how photo retouching, combined with plastic surgery and intensive cosmetics - is making pictures of real people look kind of other-worldly and creepy - that is, putting supermodels and b-list celebrities in the uncanny valley of 'almost human' that hyper-realistic robots, prosthetic hands, zombies, and corpses also fall into. Not to just steal everything the article says, but there's a link to a photo shoot of Madonna that exemplifies the problem. This is the same thing that made Beowulf not just a really bad movie, but also creepy: they were doing motion-capture, so the stunts didn't move quite right and people's eyes looked dead. The uncanny valley: where Madonna, zombies, and really bad stunts meet up.

(got it from Marginal Revolution.)

May 18, 2008

New Adventures in Pandering

All right, last week I started McCain Watch '08, in which I point out something dumb John McCain has recently done. This week, it's ponies and sunshine week at the McCain campaign: McCain both gave a speech and ran an ad in which he essentially promised that if he becomes president, all our problems will be history in 5 years.

Here's the ad.

While my mother likes to say that you can never be too thin,1 too rich, or too cynical about the stupidity of the American electorate, I honestly think that this ad is such dramatically awful pandering that, like the gas tax, it will actually make people feel condescended to, and they will therefore lose respect for McCain. I mean come on. This is the Straight Talk Express? McCain's political identity is falling all over itself.

The only other thing I have to say about it is that McCain's plan for reaching this fantasy world is primarily composed of 'setting goals' and 'having expectations,' a strategy which Gail Collins enjoyably eviscerates, squeezing in an anecdote about Republican congressmen in mohair sweaters while she's at it. This whole goal-setting, expectations-having business has been the dead center of education reform for the last umpteen years. There's a lovely moment in a generally interesting Atlantic Monthly article about rebuilding the New Orleans schools in which a business man who has started a charter school begins, in a very small way, to see that simply demanding excellence will not deliver it. Actually, and this is one of the many sad parts in that article, perhaps he doesn't begin to see it any more than McCain can see how hollow his vision is. But to the rest of us, it's crystalline.

1. Please note: this contains irony, and does not require any sort of invective against my mother's fat phobia.

May 15, 2008

best week ever

Sunday: we got the first of the Meadow Run eggs - tiny, laid within the week, with deep gold-orange eggs - and one of them had two yolks.

Monday: Great meeting with a professor about me going to graduate school. She said, "I'm glad you've come around." A delicious dinner with Abramorous and the Gardener of home fries with good local bacon, collards, and another egg. Then I made chocolate sauce.

Tuesday: A complete stranger gave me a Kitchen Aid on the street.

Wednesday: I went running for the first time in ages, then made caramel sauce, which is now sitting in my refrigerator next to the chocolate sauce. Who's coming to dinner on Saturday? Also, Edwards endorsed Obama, one of my students told me I was a big help and that she would keep my email address when she goes to college next year, and I found a girl some summer programs at college club.

Today: The California Supreme Court overturned the gay marriage ban! California: now an even more perfect place to live. I'm reading the opinion right now. Most of my ESOL kids are on a trip today, but the ones who are here, when I told them they could go watch a movie down the hall, asked if I wanted to come and when I said I'd rather help them get ready for the final, decided they'd rather learn.

Who knows what tomorrow might hold? At this rate, I might become an optimist!

May 13, 2008


Today, a complete stranger gave me a Kitchen Aid. It's cobalt blue and shiny and I love it.

May 12, 2008


I dislike large-scale capitalism, but small business is (often) rad. Which is why it's particularly depressing to me that the United States, idolator of the entrepreneur, makes it much harder than other post-industrial countries to start your own thing. Not only because small business owners and the self-employed have to buy their own health insurance, but also because if you sink your money into your business and it fails, you're tied to your debts more tightly than you would be in other countries. Not to mention that if your business fails because of a health problem, you'd be one of the more than half of all bankruptcy filers who got there because of their medical bills.

May 10, 2008

McCain Watch 2008: the beginning

Having said that McCain does a stupid thing every week, I'm going to post the ones I hear about. I'm betting it'll be one a week easy.

This week: McCain allies himself with another lobbyist, this time one whose lobbying firm got $348,000 from Burma's military government in 2002. Not that McCain of all people has any reason to know that military prison in Southeast Asia is no fun. Or that Burma/Myanmar's junta is in the news this week for obstructing and diverting aid that could prevent tens of thousands of people dying in the post-cyclone catastrophe.

As hilzoy at Obsidian Wings says, "You have to admire not just the McCain campaign's tin ear, but their impeccable sense of timing." All you need for an ad is the Newsweek headline: "McCain's Convention Chair Worked for Burma's Military Junta."

The Democrats have an extraordinary knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but at least they have plenty to work with.

May 9, 2008


A McCain aide, on some reports that McCain did not vote for Bush in 2000:

"She’s a flake and a poser and an attention-seeking diva.... I know neither actor, but I assume they were acting."

In other words, he called a blogger names and impugned the honesty of two actors because they're actors.

Meanwhile, among the Democrats, "Mr. Obama’s top aides have also issued a directive to treat Mrs. Clinton — and her supporters — with respect and make clear that the decision to remain in the race is up to her." Which is not, like, a sign of total amazingness, but could hardly be a clearer contrast.

May 8, 2008

why I dislike David Brooks

He ends up on the wrong side of reality a lot of the time. He also writes about social science without bothering to know anything about it. I like this description of the kind of standard journalists and columnists should be held to, though I'd add that anyone who writes regularly on one subject (as Brooks does about sociology and political science) should have some kind of basic understanding of the academic ideas in that field.

May 7, 2008

first time for everything

Newt Gingrich is right about something: the Republicans are in deep trouble. Losing on every issue poll, the least popular president in the history of measurable presidential popularity, record-breaking Democratic primary turnout and registration throughout the country, and their candidate says a new dumb thing every week.

Don't get too positive on Newt, though. All his ideas are still bad.

something I wrote a long time ago

Are you interested in going into the wilderness to find yourself? Don't be like this guy. Dude quits his insurance company job and "went into the woods [to] find a way back to my roots and creative intelligence."

Signs this is going to go badly: dude goes by an Egyptian word for phoenix. Dude takes a queen-size air bed with him. Backpacking. With a queen-size air bed. On his back. Dude knows nothing about backpacking but decides to fast during his adventure. Apparently including minimal or no water.

Predictable result: dude has to get rescued by a helicopter and taken to a hospital.

Don't be like this guy. If you want to go on a backcountry trip, ask some people who know what they're doing how to be safe. I guarantee you know someone. Especiallly if you live in Berkeley like phoenix-man. I hereby offer to answer your questions about backpacking and canoeing, and anything more technical than that in the backcountry probably means you want someone with some experience with you.

The whole point of wilderness is that it's not controlled by humans. So if you're a city person, it's got a whole new set of dynamics and resources, and until you understand those pretty well you should be careful. Ed Viesturs climbed 12 of the 14 highest peaks in the world without oxygen. He's never climbed Annapurna. He said that he's never seen coming home as optional, so he's willing to walk away from anything that's too dangerous. This is a man who takes risks that for most of us would be off the charts, but it's the exact same mentality as [safe, reasonable] people who go out on weekend backpacking trips.

Second thing: the people rescuing that guy in California. Some of them are volunteers - I can't tell how many, but at least one organization that got called out. This is part of what burns me about people who recklessly put themselves in a position to be rescued. Most of the search and rescue people in remote areas (maybe less in Monterey County and other more densely populated areas) are volunteers. They give up their weekends to go to trainings, get familiar with the area, and pick people up who get lost; they buy most of their own gear. You'd be surprised how many search and rescue groups are volunteers: if you get lost in the Tahoe resort, you get rescued by paid people, but if you get lost skiing in the backcountry where it's a lot more dangerous it's Tahoe Nordic S&R that'll come look for you, and they're volunteers. I mean come on. You're going to ask volunteers to put in many hours for training and rescue because you didn't do some minimal research?

May 6, 2008

one item off the to-do list

I'm done with my master's program. IT IS AWESOME. (to be done, not the master's program. are you kidding?)

May 5, 2008

schools, prisons, and soldiers

Sara Robinson is really good. I read four articles by her today, all of them interesting. (Yes, I was avoiding something, why do you ask?) I don't really know what a social futurist is or whether it's a type of academic training that makes any sense, but her writing on the FLDS is worthwhile, especially if you have any kind of personal interest in what happens when Mormons go nuts.

However. What you should actually read is the one about the GI Bill - her basic take is that without good incentives to join the military, it will rapidly decline in quality, so that no one with any better options will join. You end up with chaos and violence, no discipline, and officers being unable to hold it down - you know, kind of like the public schools in bad neighborhoods. Like prison, this kind of situation will breed gangs, some racist, some religious, some based on drug-running and other economic activities. Those soldiers get out and they bring it all back home, turning most of the country into something closely resembling the neighborhood where I teach.

While I love my students, this is not the world you want to live in.