June 24, 2008

driving up to New Hampshire

Some people like driving alone. It's a thrill. Good for thinking, with the red line of taillights like a guide to your thoughts, and the whole country linked up through the Eisenhower interstate system, and you're alone with your rattly engine and some meditative work. Not me. I want someone there to change the tape and read the directions and pass me a water bottle. But I can do it, and I take a certain grim pleasure in the doing - mostly in my ability to do it. The apex of that particular masochism came in 2006: 2500 miles over 5 days, one of them the 14-hour haul from Des Moines to Vail. That spring I put over ten thousand miles on my car, including 1500 in one particular weekend, almost all of them driven alone. It's exhausting work, strangely, to sit in one place and stare, carefully, ahead and behind and to the side while making small adjustments to a wheel and some levers.

Sunday night I left home at 5 pm and drove more or less north until 1:38 in the morning. Up through New Jersey and over the George Washington Bridge and across the Bronx. I stopped at a little gas station in northwestern Connecticut, did jumping jacks while I pumped gas, and laughed at some teen-ager who told me he liked my car. Got sweaty and exhausted and that feeling - does anyone else get this? - that my eyes are something like the robot's in Wall-E: set way back in the middle of my head and taking up half of it, maybe more.

It's so awful but it feels good.

June 21, 2008

worst. columnist. ever.

The David Brooks approach to social commentary:

1. Identify two opposing stereotypes.

2. Use them to describe a situation which is manifestly irreducible to stereotype.

3. Claim that using these stereotypes gives you special insight into the situation in question.

4. Ignore any inconvenient facts, which is to say most of them.

Tim Burke is correct that this is calculatedly dishonest. See Sasha Issenberg for further details.

June 20, 2008

last day

Two years ago, I was getting drunk with the entire Teach for America South Dakota corps in Valentine, Nebraska, after the last day of school.

Last night, I was playing ultra-competitive flip cup with a good chunk of the TFA Philadelphia corps after the last day of school. Earlier in the evening, people had been drinking and smoking cigars on someone's back patio when one of the people there called the principal and got her to come. She stayed for one drink and tried to get some of the teachers there to come work for her.

It was totally fun. I got home at 1:30. Now I have to go to school to be professionally developed. I'm not sure I'm going to make it.

June 19, 2008


There's an entertaining anecdote in one of the American political science books - I think it's John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in which a transportation researcher arrives at a conference on public transit by bus. All the other transportation experts gather around him and pepper him with questions about the bus. They are experts on buses who have no experience of buses.

It's the kind of thing that actually happens all the time - happened to me last weekend, at a party where I met an education researcher who wanted to ask me questions about teaching - but it reached perhaps its lowest state in the absurd situation of Chris Matthews claiming that Obama didn't understand diners. It's old news, over two months old, in fact, and too stupid to be worth resurrecting, except that goddammit it makes me mad.

The situation: Obama is at a diner in Indiana; he's offered coffee; he says he'll take orange juice. According to Chris Matthews, this is something that is not done in diners, and based on this fact alone I will guaran-goddamn-tee to you that I spend more time in diners than Chris Matthews does. Obama asked for orange juice for crying out loud, not pomegranate white tea or whiskey or something else you shouldn't expect a diner to have, and not for chicken-fried steak or something else you shouldn't substitute for , and he did not launch into a tirade about how coffee is bad for you. He asked for another drink which is usually available at diners, which is a completely normal response to being offered a cup of coffee.

Chris Matthews blathers about this violation of diner etiquette at length. He appoints himself as an expert on diners, and in doing so makes it blindingly obvious that he doesn't know what he's talking about. No experience whatsoever.

And then, icing on the cake, Matthews tells his correspondent, "You could do this. Shake hands at a diner. What a regular guy."

Recap: Chris Matthews - TV personality, estimated income over $5 million/year, married to an executive at J.W. Marriott, graduate work in economics - is telling us who counts as a regular guy.

Not him.

June 18, 2008

end of an era

It's the end of the year - end of 2 years, end of my time as a high school teacher - so I'm going to write a little about my students. It'll probably be cheesy. I'm writing it for myself, so don't read if you don't want to.

Selene said, when I talked to her about her disruptive shouting and insistence that she wanted to go to the principal, that she hated failing my class, and particularly hated that she felt unable to stop failing. "Sometimes I want to fail myself, so I know I did it and it's not just you failing me."

So human. Also such an incredible thing to be able to articulate.

There was a little awards assembly and I gave two girls - the only ones there who had earned anything particular in my class - achievement awards. They hugged me: I was the only teacher to get a hug (I was also the youngest by about 30 years). Later, one of them came to talk to me in my class. She was practically glowing. She wanted to tell me something but didn't have the words, so I told her to say it in French. "I want to say - sorry, pour tout mal que j'ai fait."1 It was probably the loveliest most heartfelt apology I've ever received.

being cool
I played spoons for about an hour with 8 of my favorite students this morning. I dealt and they were all impressed by my shuffling skills and fought madly over the spoons whenever the scuffle started.

A girl who is, as my mother would say, the glass of fashion saw me a few weeks ago with my glasses and said, "What is this?! It's not cute!" Monday and Tuesday she wore her glasses to school.

I am all over the yearbook, including one absolutely characteristic photo of me standing in front of a full class of students with my finger on my lips.

but not that cool
Speed Scrabble was a poor choice of game for people who don't speak English fluently.

statistical self-congratulation
84% of the students in my senior class are going to college or community college. The rate schoolwide is 30%.

Graduation is tomorrow.

June 17, 2008

McCain Watch: Taxes

McCain's tax plan is, ahem, bad.

Here's a handy graph (stolen from The Reality-Based Community showing the benefits to each income quintile of the McCain and Obama tax plans.

The benefits from Obama's plan are in blue, the benefits from McCain's are in red, and if it costs a quintile something that appears as a downward bar. It's clear that Obama's plan benefits lower- and middle- income taxpayers while costing the top 1% and top 0.1% quite a bit (all this is measured relative to 'current policy' - i.e. extending the Bush tax cuts - rather than 'current law,' which includes a sunset for the Bush tax cuts.) McCain's plan give everyone a little bit, but gives the top 20% more (and the top 1% and top 0.1% do even better); Obama actually costs the top quintile something, but is superior for everyone else. In addition, Obama's plan increases revenue (again, relative to current policy rather than current law) by 2%, while McCain loses 2% (not to mention his non-tax policy of maintaining troops in Iraq indefinitely, which will be very expensive and contribute to large deficits). The Tax Policy Center, which is a center-left, definitely academic, generally reliable entity (partnership of Brookings and the Urban Institute, gives this analysis of economic effects:

McCain's reduced individual and corporate rates would improve economic efficiency and increase domestic investment, but the larger deficits he would incur to do so would reduce and could completely offset any positive effect. In contrast, Senator Obama's proposed new tax credits could encourage desirable behavior, particularly if the childless EITC and payroll tax rebate encourage additional labor supply among childless low-income individuals. However, he would also direct new subsidies at an already favored group - seniors - and an already favored activity - borrowing for housing-which could probably be better directed elsewhere.

I think it's worth pointing out that it is not pro-business to cut taxes and increase deficits, which McCain is essentially inevitably proposing.

Obama does not get a pass here from me. Subsidizing home equity borrowing has been way overdone, and, like the Tax Policy Center, I think there are better ways to use that money. However, his proposals are far more fiscally responsible than McCain's 'cut taxes on the rich in war-time' plan.

The bottom line is that McCain isn't even good for business interests, just for (maybe) the top 1% who benefit so dramatically from his tax plans that it offsets the damage to the overall economy. And in fact his plan is so skewed that Obama's plan is prima facie better for the bottom 80% of the income distribution. If, as economists like to believe, we are all constantly making economically rational choices, I expect to see an 80 - 20 vote split this November.

June 16, 2008


There's a very interesting article about African immigrants in France, something I'm particularly interested in because I have several Malian students who grew up in Paris. The article describes both Obama's rock star status and his effect as a catalyst for conversations about race in traditionally race-blind France, as well as the growing movement among black immigrants to France to address race.

Personal note: My students have said, very clearly, that it is better to be African in Paris than in Philadelphia. My mother's response to that was: the deepest racism in France is against Arabs.

The article is worth reading not only for its fascinating look at race somewhere else - where race officially does not exist, but where far-right xenophobes were second in the 2002 presidential election - but also because it contains some excellent snippets.

For example, a summary of the trouble with ignoring race:

"The idea behind not categorizing people by race is obviously good; we want to believe in the republican ideal," he said. "But in reality we’re blind in France, not colorblind but information blind, and just saying people are equal doesn’t make them equal."

France does not have particular trouble with educational inequity, but economic inequality persists:
The percentage of blacks in France who hold university degrees is 55, compared with 37 percent for the general population. But the number of blacks who get stuck in the working class is 45 percent, compared with 34 percent for the national average.

And for sheer color:
Youssoupha ... [a Sorbonne-educated Congolese French rapper] was nursing a Coke recently at Top Kafé, a Lubavitch Tex-Mex restaurant in Créteil, just outside Paris, where he lives. Nearby, two waiters in yarmulkes sat watching Rafael Nadal play tennis on television beneath dusty framed pictures of Las Vegas and Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. A clutch of Arab teenagers smoked outside.

That's right, a Lubavitch Tex-Mex restaurant just outside Paris. Beat that! (No seriously - what does beat that?)

June 12, 2008

dead past

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has been writing about trying to survive in Europe around 1000 AD with a secondary question about other time periods, still in Europe. Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East have obviously come up - people have suggested, wisely in my view, that someone whose primary skills are academic might do better in the Middle East or East Asia around that time.

I find this particular question totally fascinating, but the discussion makes me scratch my head. First of all, there's a blind assumption that the traveler in question is male and white. Much discussion of how much taller and stronger than everyone you'd be (I doubt I'd be taller than most of the men), little discussion of the relative rape risk, assumption that the obstacles will be those faced by an ill-informed foreigner, not by a woman who may legally be property. Similar for race: if you look dramatically different from anyone the people there have met (not just taller/stronger/healthier/better teeth, but completely different skin color) you might have some interesting reactions.

Second, most of the advice is about how to take over the world. I find this kind of laughable, especially when people assume that some small piece of knowledge would be immediately influential, or that you'd be able to somehow leverage your vastly! superior! knowledge of marketing! or your basic understanding of something very technical like telescope lenses in order to revolutionize the society. My favorite might be the person who suggests posing as a wizard (which in and of itself might get you killed) by using 'a magnet, some wire, and a water wheel' to produce electricity (where will you get a magnet and some wire? also, educated people may already know about electricity: the Greeks did) or by using a lighter (basically a fancy flint and steel, which is a very old technology). Also foolish is the idea that a modern person with no fighting expertise or reputation would be able to convince the nobility that your military strategy would be better than theirs. Still, there are some pretty good ideas in this category: selling boiled water, working on camp sanitation for your local ruler's military (reduce disease casualties in wartime? very useful), bookkeeping, a few simple technologies.

All of them ignore the most important thing. I think most of us would find that we have a lot of potentially usable information, but it's not going to do you a damn bit of good if you get killed (as a witch, as a heretic, just by pissing someone off). Since the original question was about what to do to prepare, here's my advice. Start by learning wilderness survival stuff: shelter-building, basic navigation and time-telling, how to build simple snares, gutting small game, edible plants, fire-building (flint and steel is your best bet here - bowdrill is a royal pain). Most people of the time will probably be much better at it than you, but it'd be nice not to look like a total fool; also, I think people are likely to be the most dangerous condition you face, so being able to ditch people for a while would be pretty useful. Second, learn as much self-defense as possible. In both situations, don't concentrate on our stereotypical ideas about what knights and other nobility do (swords? not your friends): instead, learn knife and hand fighting for self-defense, focus on small game in hunting, etc.

Remember that people don't have the scientific method as an integral part of their culture yet, so even if you start doing something that improves health outcomes or whatever, they may not be able to fully notice or understand those improvements. That's a real liability if you're trying to develop a sanitation infrastructure or do medical work: it's not going to be 100% effective, and the first failure may call your entire work into question, depending on the explanatory model people are using. These kinds of cultural differences probably cannot be overstated, though of course human commonalities remain.

Personally, my only real skill is medicine. And not just boiling water or basic anatomy, where the benefits are not immediately obvious: because I have some wilderness medicine training, I'm pretty decent at treating sprains, breaks, cuts, and other day-to-day emergencies where the pay-off is fairly immediate and not just epidemiological. Depending on where I landed, that's probably the type of work I'd try for; if I were in Christian Europe, I might also head for a convent.

June 11, 2008

I do not think it means what you think it means

Stephen Dubner, on the Freakonomics blog argues in favor of specialization and against eating local. The argument makes some sense: transportation costs, according to some recent work, don't account for that much of the carbon emissions created for food. Here's where my understanding breaks down. Dubner describes making orange sherbet, which was expensive and produced crappy orange sherbet: unsurprising. He concludes from this that growing one's own food is likely to be resource-intensive in money, labor, and waste, and that therefore specialization is a better deal. Which, fine, but it's based on some fundamental misunderstandings of the local food movement.

1. Eating local doesn't necessarily mean growing your own. I certainly grow fairly little of my own food (the Gardener of course has a garden, with lettuce and greens and tomatoes and herbs), but I eat mostly local, including items like eggs and milk that are totally impractical for me to raise myself.

2. Specialization can mean different things. The farmers I buy from have a specialized job as farmers, but they maintain the ecological health of their farms by growing a variety of crops which they rotate, and by incorporating animals into their farms. So their job is specialized, but they are generalists within that specialty: being a true specialist as a farmer means planting a monocrop, which then exposes your crops to greater disease risk and reduces your ability to let the ecology do the work of keeping the land healthy. Dubner conflates specialization of labor with specialization of crop, and they're very different.

3. Bizarrely, Dubner argues that growing your own will rarely be cheaper. This is just untrue overall, although there will always be exceptions. Herbs are a great example: a window box with marjoram, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, etc will run you something like the cost of 2-3 bundles of each herb. There are certain things where that's not true, obviously (eggs and milk are easy examples, but corn is expensive and takes a lot of land), but Dubner doesn't really investigate the costs: he just assumes that it's similar to his orange sherbet. What's particularly funny is that the NYT food section has a current article about how people are gardening to reduce their food costs, which does include some actual information.

4. Growing your own means using excess capacity. Walk around any city: there's tons of space to grow food, including patios, vacant lots, roofs, windowboxes. Because this increases the net food growing capacity of the planet, growing your own, especially for city dwellers using it as a supplement, is a pretty clear benefit for overall efficiency. Similarly, Dubner claims that people are bad at growing their own food, but this isn't a fixed point: the best way to get better at gardening is to do it for a few years.

As an aside, if I were trying to do what Dubner did with the orange sherbet, but in an efficient way, the first thing I would do is abandon the idea that it needs to be orange sherbet, and instead make something with some excess: this week, that'd be strawberry-buttermilk ice cream with jam strawberries that you can sometimes get at the Farmstand and the buttermilk that's left in our fridge from making butter out of cream that was going to go bad. Part of the point of eating local and being ecologically efficient is turning waste into food. Compost, buttermilk, yogurt, jam, dried tomatoes: take what you have too much of and make it useful.

small success

Weeks ago, one of my students, an extraordinarily dedicated girl from Sierra Leone, was in class when the rest of the students on a field trip and said, "You have to help me with my spelling homework. I don't understand it and my mother doesn't know how to read." I told my dad this story and he said that lots of Americans don't know how to read, but as far as this girl knows her home language doesn't have a written form. Not just, has trouble understanding Dickens. This is, has trouble with using symbols to represent sounds in order to communicate.

Last week, she got a B on her math final.

June 10, 2008

you know it's hot

1. I bought an air conditioner after 4 summers in Philadelphia.

2. I've been wearing skirts for the last 4 days. In fact, I bought a dress last night because the idea of wearing pants to school today made me want to vomit.

3. They let school out at noon yesterday and today.

June 9, 2008

McCain Watch #4: Less jobs, more wars

1. McCain called his wife a trollop and a cunt. Sixteen years ago, but yowzah. In front of reporters and everything, because she teased him about his thinning hair. Actual quote: "At least I don't plaster on the make-up like a trollop, you cunt." Hello, impulse control. You can read about it, apparently, in The Real McCain.

2. Speaking of the same pun, please watch the video below, from The REAL John McCain: Less Jobs, More Wars. This is what I meant when I said the anti-McCain ads practically write themselves.

Then you can watch the second one:

My favorite part is at the end, right before he starts falling over his own feet talking about the tax cuts, where he says he thinks the US is better off than we were 8 years ago and then says we aren't. Please watch them both. It's worth 6 minutes and 4 seconds of your life.

June 7, 2008

half right

California is denying water permits to development projects that don't have an adequate water supply, which turns out to be quite a few of them. While this NYT article, as usual, omits some important information (where are most of the permits being denied?) and is a short newspaper article so you don't get much background (have I told you to read Cadillac Desert? I'll tell you again), it's still pretty interesting. Adequate water supply in this case means meeting a 2001 rule that you need a 20-year water supply: California already relies heavily on water imported from the Colorado basin, so it's not clear where any new water is going to come from, especially since climate-change predictions have the Colorado basin and California both getting dryer.

The problem, as the article does mention, is that agriculture - mostly though not entirely heavily subsidized, environmentally devastating, corporate agriculture - uses much more water than residential and office uses. So the water boards are absolutely right to prevent developments - especially developments with golf courses! which should never exist west of the 100th meridian! - that lack an adequate water supply, but at some point agriculture will have to pay too. It's a sign of the lunacy of our agricultural system that we have dammed rivers and exterminated salmon in order to grow and heavily subsidize crops that destroy the topsoil, pump chemicals into the Pacific, and end up with land whose inadequate drainage concentrates selenium and other heavy metals and chemicals in swamps that then kill migratory birds and are essentially permanently unusable. And then we have to refrigerator-truck those crops across the country, exacerbating global climate change and further reducing the available water for California.


June 4, 2008

McCain Watch #4: Candidate Rundown

Clinton: I can't believe she didn't withdraw from the race. I don't want to hate her - some of my first political memories are of the sexism in '92, and I want her to be the person we were so excited about then - but damn. She's making it hard.

Obama: While, like a friend who said this, I'm weary of being excited about Obama, I'm still really excited that he actually got the nomination.

McCain: In his speech last night, he committed one of the classic blunders, right up there under "never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line." (Come to think of it, McCain does want to get/keep us involved in a land war in Asia, so I guess more blunders are unsurprising). He criticized Obama extensively, and at the end of many paragraphs said, "That's not change we can believe in." It's a mistake to do that: it reminds his audience of Obama's slogan, in the same way that telling someone not to stick beans in their ears would bring up the idea in the first place. Moreover, when you hear an instruction like that, your brain has a tendency to edit out the 'not.' All McCain is doing is giving Obama a bunch of free publicity.

As an aside, it's pretty impressive that Obama's slogan is now so well-known that McCain can use it freely in his speech and assume his audience will know it. The other candidates certainly don't have that kind of recognition for particular phrases.

June 3, 2008

McCain Watch #3: small and scary edition

McCain's staffing decisions are one of the least impressive things about his campaign. The guy who claims to be against lobbyist influence hiring mostly lobbyists? Check. The guy who claims to be deeply experienced in foreign policy and "need no on the job training" being corrected about basic strategic facts in the Middle East? Check.

Now, we learn that McCain's Deputy Communications Director, Michael Goldfarb, believes that the president has "near dictatorial powers in foreign policy and war." Aside from that pesky bit where the right to declare war is reserved to Congress by the US Constitution, along with raising, governing, funding, arming, and disciplining the military; not to mention that the president's powers in foreign policy are to be exercised with the advice and consent of the Senate. Constitution? What constitution? Now, it's true that Goldfarb said those things before he joined the McCain campaign, but there's no indication that it was not his true belief - or what passes for belief these days. I expect - well, I hope - that this sort of thing will catch up with McCain. If he can't choose decent staff for his campaign, why should he be allowed to pick federal government staff?

McCain: now with even more terrification.

June 2, 2008


My brother and I are looking at getting Obama discs printed: good discs, 175 g, white with the blue and red logo in the middle, printed pretty large. Half the profits would go to the campaign.

I need to know, though, if anyone wants the damn things before I put in an order. So - do you want an Obama frisbee? Do you want it enough to pay $15 for it? Would it be cooler with plain red and blue or with sparkle red and blue for the logo?


Teaching is consistently surreal, but Tuesday might have set a record. A senior - Mon, who asked me out in all apparent seriousness last winter - was walking by my car when I got to school with a three-year-old, a little boy in one of those adorably adult jacket and floppy hat combinations, holding onto his left hand. It was his son.

Mon was there to give his senior project presentation on gangs, which he managed to do around 1:40. Most of the presentation consisted of a history of the Crips and their relationship to the Black Panthers, along with some pseudo-academic filler and quite a bit about gang signs and symbols. I sat in my classroom watching him draw gang signs on my chalkboard and explain which ones were for Crips and which for Bloods, and at the end he gave a rather incoherent plea to keep kids out of gangs through better parenting.

Afterwards, I asked him about it. Let's get real - you're in a gang, or you've said you are, and you have a son. Are you trying to keep your son out of the gang? Do you actually think gangs are bad?

No, he said. Around my way, it's more like a family - we look out for each other. And it might have some bad things to it, but it's a way for people to come together and I really don't see nothing wrong in it.

Then he went upstairs to collect his son from the ELECT office where he was napping, and I emailed him and the other teacher his grade.

June 1, 2008

glass houses; stones

Today, Bush called for a "culture of responsibility."

After you, Mr. President.