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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Legal Problems"

“I was legally and constitutionally appointed. Why won’t they seat me because the governor has legal problems? You know, that’s apples and oranges.”
-Roland W. Burris

This quote from the NY times makes my head spin around on my shoulders.

It most definitely is not apples and oranges. A person seated in the senate is a representative of a portion of a democratic nation. A representative being appointed at all is an unfortunate and necessary evil, a step taken only when such a seat has been vacated early by something like death, or someone being elected president. Because it is necessary, the power to appoint exists. Because it is evil, the power is allocated only to the governor, who is assumed to be a sane person, and himself a representative of the will of the people who elected him.

Blagojevich is clearly not sane, and I seriously doubt the people he represents wanted him to attempt to sell Obama’s senate seat. Furthermore, not only is it wrong that Burris was appointed by Blagojevich, his appointment was a flagrant exploitation of racial tension. The governor knew that blocking Burris’s appointment would be awkward for politicians and that is the only reason he made that appointment. His first attempt, representative Danny Davis (also black, which is why I say Blagojevich’s attempt to exploit racial tension to get his way is “flagrant”), had the good sense, wisdom and common decency to politely inform Blagojevich where he could stick his nomination.

This is absurd. Burris knows what he’s being handed and he’s taking it anyway. I get it. No black people in the senate today. Gotta break those glass ceilings. But this isn’t breaking a glass ceiling. This isn’t an election, it's an appointment, and Burris is attaching himself to one of the most hated men in politics. To a man who actually tried to sell a senate seat to the highest bidder. It is political suicide of the worst sort, because Burris is sacrificing his career not to do something worthwhile or good, but to do something misguided and bad.

That Burris is trying to justify accepting the nomination...

That sickens me.

That absolutely sickens me.

It’s disgusting.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Christmas is done, I am back, and while I have friends remaining to visit, those trips that remain will inspire more articles than they are likely to inhibit.

Tonight I turn my mind to the task of writing a dialog, in the screenplay style.

Lucifer and Michael stand apace from each other and the war rages on around them. Michael adopts a look of great emotion and says to Lucifer:

MICHAEL: “There's only one thing I want to know, Lucifer. How? How did you become free?”

LUCIFER: “Who said I was free?”

I remember reading JOB in a class in college named “The Problem of Evil.” The class itself was an endless collection of people pointing out, one after the other, that if you applied a system of rules, devised by humans and thus inherently flawed, to God, he didn't make any sense. What a silly concept! After all, it seems to me that the most common use of God by man is as a method of dealing with things that don't make sense. The argument “your method of dealing with the illogical is illogical and therefore illogical” is somehow both circular and inane, when stated apart from the usual protective cloud of long words and flowery language. A favorite quote of mine from Quine (though I have taken it quite out of context) puts it best: “Our argument is not flatly circular, but something like it. It has the form, figuratively speaking, of a closed curve in space.

I bring this up, though, because there is a story that has interested me for a very long time, and it is the story of the fall of Lucifer. The bible is vague, and so one is free to throw an amazing degree of personal inflection on the events, both those referenced by God when speaking to the King of Egypt and those referenced by the book of revelations, a book I honestly believe was inspired by an overdose of Opium.

The book of JOB seems to imply that “the adversary” must follow God's rules. But if God's rules apply to the adversary, than why is the adversary so often portrayed as a being apart from God, in opposition to him?

There are two main ways around this. Either the adversary, Satan, the Devil, is a part of God and under God's control, or he is not. If he is, then we run into The Problem of Evil, because if the Devil is part of God or under God's control, the actions of the Devil are God's responsibility and God cannot be wholly good. If the Devil is not part of God, on the other hand, we run into The Problem of Evil because God does not have control over the Devil and thus, God cannot be omnipotent.

There's a third way around this conundrum, of course, and that is that if God made a promise to the adversary similar to the promise he made man (free will), to break that promise would be impossible for a wholly good Deity. If, then, we set aside that frivolous crap and focus in on the matter at hand, it is possible that the Devil, wishing to come home, was willing to play by any rules he was given in order to make his case to God and be allowed home.

What case?

That man is as corruptible as the Devil, and that if man is permitted redemption, so too must fallen angels be permitted to redeem themselves.

The specifics are neither here, nor there. Really, the question itself is interesting. Why not?

LUCIFER: “I am no more free than you, Michael. I perform my function.”

Let us presume that free will divides man and angels. This seems reasonable. After all, the bible never explicitly grants free will to Angels and they never seem to make use of it until the final chapter, revelations. If angels have no free will, this also in some capacity explains the necessity of mankind. God created us to worship him, because the perfect worship of the angels was meaningless. They did not have free will. Their worship was an empty crystal chalice. Pretty, but not terribly successful at slackening anyone's thirst.

If this is the case, revelations itself takes on something of a sinister overtone. God once flooded the world to rid it of the unfaithful, and then promised never to do it again. What, though, was the nature of the flood? If the promise was meant in simple literal terms, God has many other options for wiping most of humanity out. He could cleanse the world in fire, for instance. But presuming God isn't in to cheap tricks, and I suspect he's not, it seems safe to presume his intention was to promise that he would never do anything like the flood again.

The essential component of the flood, it seems to me, is that it is like a dog being beaten for pooping on the rug a week prior. There is no connection, to the dog's mind, between his sin and his punishment. He learns nothing from it. The flood made learning irrelevant, because it killed all the sinners outright, but in God's estimation, perhaps this was a ham-handed way to go about it. Reasonable then, to say to man “look, I don't really regret what I did, but in the future, we'll handle this sort of thing differently.”

MICHAEL: “How do you go against God if you are not free?”

LUCIFER: “Who said I was going against God?”

Revelations is about sorting. The bad from the good, the wicked from the pure, the Christian from the otherwise inclined. It isn't, however, a random sorting. People are allowed to take sides. Then, there is a war, and one side wins outright. According to the bible, God's side wins. The ending is already predetermined.

If the ending is predetermined and Lucifer is aware of this (as he must be) then why even bother? What would he gain? What would anyone gain?

To me, the answer is obvious. Lucifer gains nothing. Lucifer is a tool. God is flooding the world, but this time he wants the side flooded to know why and to understand their sin in very tangible terms. He is directly connecting their sin with their punishment. He even warns them, if they happen to read the book “look, the ending of this thing is preordained. There's a right side and a wrong side, and you'd have to be pretty stupid to be on the wrong side of this one, but if you really, really want to, you can be.”

He lays out a series of appropriately vague indicators that the apocalypse is approaching, sits back, and lets people squirm around trying to figure out when the fight is gonna happen. He waits.

There is no incentive for God to bring about the actual apocalypse. Not yet. As long as people keep trying to figure out when it's going to happen and keep coming up with dates, there will be incentive for people to clean up their act in preparation for the inevitable. When the incentive from that is clearly not working anymore, that will be the proper time for God to show up and say “reminder time, folks, I hope you've read up on the good book” and have Lucifer knock 1/3 of the stars out of heaven.

Lucifer will round up an army of the unfaithful, and God will smite them down. It's a ruthless method of cleaning house, sure, but God never pretended to be a fluffy bunny kind of guy, and his only use of a rainbow, ever, was as a lame apology for a genocide he was already planning to repeat. Let's face it. God, according to the bible, is a hard-ass.

MICHAEL: “But if you're his tool, surely he will spare you!”

LUCIFER: “Does man spare a hammer that has been spent, a saw that has been dulled, or a spoon that has been bent?”

Of course, Lucifer must see this coming. If nothing else, he's got the book to go by. So he knows he's going to be used in this fashion. Without free will, he has no choice, but surely this must wear on his nerves! He must be looking, even now, for any way at all that he can break away from his dismal fate, betray God by not betraying God or by betraying God in a different way. Yet every such thought feeds the fire and makes him more the tool that God needs – a tool which genuinely despises his own master. A convincing, but powerless enemy. An unwilling scalpel.

But like a scalpel, the telling of Lucifer's story humanizes him, which may in itself be an error. To humanize a scalpel is to give it emotions the scalpel cannot feel, and thoughts the scalpel cannot have. Much as observing an electron changes its behavior, attempting to get at the essence of a fallen angel through logic might be the wrong way to explore the subject's essential properties.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Reframing Life"

It was the summer that I turned 16. I had been raped by one of her friends. It was a confusing time to begin with, turning 16 and knowing I was going to be starting yet another school, in yet another state. Like so many times before I packed my bags for my new “home”. I blocked out what happened, and what continued to happen.

School was the last thing on my mind over the next year and it was made clear by both my behavior and my lack of grades. I had one passion that lived through my rape and could continue to thrive through the madness happening around me and to my person. I was lucky enough to have a NYC high school art teacher who was persistent with me and pushed me to apply to the coveted New York State Summer School of the Arts. It was here that I became who people know now and where I found my true voice. I met many others who also had a passion at this program and all of us became quick friends who supported each other emotionally. This experience continued to shape me and my ambitions for my life.

I was lucky enough to get recruited to go to college. I ended up attending Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I was fearful, but hopeful I would become a professional Film Editor like Walter Murch and change the way that Hollywood cinema edits sexual abuse scenes. My 3rd year I wrote a thesis on this topic and realized that this was the way that America made money, sex sells and it doesn’t matter what kind of sex it is, consensual or non consensual.

I quickly was disillusioned and desperate to make an impact. Wanting to wake the public up to these facts, I looked at various different directions to go after graduation from college. A common thread within the career paths were that I wanted to work with teens who had similar experiences to mine. My sister suggested Social Work School within the laundry list of other post bachelor degrees I looked at.

My senior year of college I interviewed for a position at a Boston public charter high school as an art teacher. They were looking for a general art teacher to teach at risk kids. I was clearly well versed with this demographic, I had been one only a short time ago. I pitched a wild idea that was not what they were seeking. I spoke of teaching photography and getting grants to subsidize the whole thing and then having it culminate in a show at the end of the duration of the year. While my pitch of the program might have sounded far fetched and flaky, the hiring committee decided to take a chance and sign me on. Much to their surprise, I did secure grants for supplies, design a curriculum of both practical photography and exposure to different photographers. Additionally, I gathered support from the community around the charter school and the Museum of Fine Arts.

While there were times when it did not seem that things would come together, I persisted and kept faith in my ability and the ability of my students to live up to the expectations that I had set for them. And with the end of the year, came the showing of the student's work. While I designed the space in which art work was presented, the students edited the pictures (done in photoshop after scanning in color negatives) and co-selected their work that was to be exhibited. The student's were also required to write a cohesive artist statement for the gallery and gallery book. While I curated the show and the press related materials, the students had an active role in deciding major factors of the end products.And ultimatly, within the midst of teaching and curtating the show, I did end up being admitted to Social Work School at George Warren Brown School of Social Work/Washington University in St. Louis.

My students in Boston had become part of who I was, much like my friends from NYSSSA, and when moving across half the country, I thought of what their lives would be like; what stories would they have to tell by my age? I left though, knowing that I had given a similar gift that was given to me back when I was their age. They were armed with an impressive portfolio of work printed and mounted professionally.

It is a moment in my life that I don’t like to remember that has made me see my true calling in life. Life is about taking what has happened to you and doing something about it. By doing, I refer to actions that remedy or negate what has been done to you. I have become committed to doing this everyday.

My peers (some who have very similar stories of trial and tribulations as teens) and I have embarked on the mounting of a national not-for-profit foundation using media teaching as a way to empower and restore a voice to teens who have suffered trauma. The foundation is to be called “The Reframing Life Foundation”. The main purpose of the foundation is the research and application of media in the adolescent population who have experienced trauma. Reframing Life’s goal is to not only give a voice but create a group of peers who have similar experiences and a common experience beyond trauma. This will all happen through the power of media-making.

The Reframing Life Foundation plans to run programs during summers, weekends, and after the traditional school day. Ultimately, Reframing Life hopes to have this therapeutic method recognized by both the social work/therapeutic community and by the general academic communities.Eventually, Reframing Life hopes to provide training to individual educators/social workers and have associated programs run in public institutions.

The board of members that we have put together is small (consisting of about 6 individuals), but diverse as far as personal experience, socio-economic status, and academic background- from individuals who work in finance to individuals who are highly skilled artists (bios are posted on Facebook). We all believe in this mission for various reasons, but have a strong passion for the same goal; to provide a voice for those who feel like they have lost or have had theirs stolen from them.We are reachable by email at and we also have a group on Facebook. Just search The Reframing Life Foundation under groups. I urge you to join the Facebook group and possibly inquire about getting involved in the cause.

Welcome to our Newest Author

Michelle (Preciousthings) is a good friend of mine with a bit of a rocky history and a bone to pick, and her area of expertise (and her perspective) varies so widely from my own and from that of Tiro that she's a natural pick to expand our collection here. I'm not sure how frequent she'll be, but her first post coming up is a sales-pitch for her foundation, the Reframing Life Foundation.

All the legal documents were submitted recently and so status is pending, and she has to start raising funds. Since there's no such thing as bad publicity and the cause is one I believe in, I figured she might as well get the word out here as well.

If you're looking for something to throw money at, this one won't be a waste of it. Michelle's as reliable as a rock, and if she says she's going to do something, god help whoever gets in the way.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I have taken the bookmark to a higher plane

In case you're wondering what I've been up to, here's some samples from the line of bookmarks I'm putting out. The process of producing them is time-consuming and error prone, but the finished product is an archival-quality print with a protective coating on the photo's side (full-blown lamination made the bookmarks slightly too thick for my preferences and cheapens the look and feel, so I found an alternative... it takes more work on my part and results in a greater error rate, but the product is worth it). On the reverse there's a small explanation of where, and how, each photograph was taken, but they're not that interesting so I won't upload the backs here.

Just a slight additional fyi, none of these images are uploaded in original quality, and none are in the public domain, but if you wish to use them for educational purposes, be my guest. There may even be a law about that somewhere, but it never hurts to clarify.

In the end, what I wanted to accomplish was for each bookmark to seem like a window through which you were viewing another part of the world. From Versailles to Marseille, from Lake Superior to the suburbs and truck stops of the midwest, each image I produce is printed so exquisitely that I challenge a human eye to find even a speck of a flaw to betray the printer. If the print doesn't make that standard, if a single piece of dust sticks to the ink or gets under the coating, I may give it away, but I will never sell it, and every bookmark that meets my standards I sign in ink to prove I inspected it personally.

I don't think there's a point to doing a thing if you're not going to do it right, and these are done right. I'm damn proud of them, and of the fact that I produce them efficiently enough to sell them for the same wholesale price bookstores buy cheap pieces of cardboard with puppies printed on them at 300 dpi.

Updates will probably resume regularly after Christmas, as until then my main focus will be trying to get these in stores, preparing presents of some variety for family and friends, and visiting relatives in other states.

They smell good too. (erm, the bookmarks, not the relatives. Happy accident of paper and ink. I only use Epson ultrachrome K3 vivid, if you're wondering, in a stylus photo R2880, Red River Paper's two-sided .13mm gloss paper. You won't find better results without mortgaging your home, and even then you won't get any guarantees.)

And if you happen to own a store and want to stock my bookmarks, I can sell them to you for $1.50 each, plus shipping... but I honestly have no idea what the shipping charges are going to look like yet, I'd have to get back to you about that. They do come in individual hanging-bags, so you don't have to worry about packaging them on site.

If you're local to the St. Louis area, I can also sell on commission. I have full confidence that my product will sell if displayed.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Error of Intellectual Arrogance

Yes, yes, I realize that the title of this piece seems to conflict with the theme of the rough I threw up a few days ago. No, I’m not schizophrenic. I’m writing my own oppositional argument for the hell of it. I also happen to believe strongly that both sides of the argument presented are simultaneously valid.

A friend of mine, heretofore “R” was not as fortunate as I was when she graduated high school and moved on to college. She was unfortunate on two fronts. On the one hand, her parents didn’t believe in her, and weren’t willing to fund more than one shot at a minimalist college education. On the other hand, R cared more about other people than she ever would about a grade.

People used to joke that R was everyone’s mommy... she’d gather messed up kids around her like a whirlpool and take care of them no matter what they did (to others or to her), and they’d all fall in love with her, every one. She was always willing to cut class, to skip a homework assignment or even skip an exam just to “be there” for someone.

But looking back, almost no one was there for R. It wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular... people tried to be there for R, but everyone’s R was a different R, and so no one really knew what was best for her, and their attempts often collided in a confused mess. R was like an onion. The longer you knew her, the more layers you could peel off, but no matter how many layers you got through, what you were looking at was a layer.

Those who understood her best were those who stopped being offended when she lied to them. One story or another, one version of events or another, one reason or another for whatever she was doing, it didn’t really matter so long as you trusted that her intentions were good. R’s intentions were always good.

She was then (and is now) a brilliant girl, and honestly I think her first attempt at college failed because it bored her. She went to a state college and found herself in a curriculum that wouldn’t have made the honors track in the high school she just graduated from. She almost didn’t graduate, because she was as willing to skip detentions as she was to skip classes, and this had somewhat of an exponential effect on the discipline problem. Fortuitously the disciplinarians of the high school knew her well enough to make allowances.

She took a year and a bit of that mess, made a whole mess of Southern Baptist friends and then dropped. She made a few other forays into the world of education after that, but mostly they ended the same way. The colleges that would have given her what she needed wouldn’t accept her, because she didn’t have the grades from high school or the “extracurricular activities” to make herself look like the prize she was.

In other words, the system screwed her, and in a roundabout way, screwed itself. She’d have been one hell of a basically-anything-you-can-think-of.

Right now, she’s working for a law office doing their payroll and (if I know R) proofreading their cases, doing their paperwork, crunching their accounts information and otherwise rendering the office in question entirely dependent on her presence to maintain functionality.

I guess my point is this. The system looks for specific things, and rewards them. But those things can be (and are) manufactured in kids, or not. Musical instrument? Either your parents started you on one or they didn’t, and (I’ve played the cello since I was three and I teach it now, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one) it probably won’t impact your ability to perform mathematical calculations. But it will impact your chances of getting in. Sports? Clubs? Same deal. GPA? Christ, I graduated with a 4.0 from high school without doing a lick of work and without learning a damn thing. R graduated with something far lower doing exactly the same thing. I went on to a bachelors in History, she went on to an office job.

Trust me, she deserves my degree more than I do.

Incidentally, I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a 2.99, and I learned more in my time there than I learned probably in the rest of my education combined. I certainly retained more there than some of my co-majors who graduated with 3.5's and above. I went to college to learn, and I dedicated myself to my classes to exactly the degree possible without them getting in the way of my studies.

My grandfather never got a college degree. An employer at Hughes aircraft happened to be a strong believer in IQ scores, and he hired him despite this lack. My grandfather ( C. H., and I really do hope he’s resting in peace) ended up Vice President for Business and Finance at Duke University. My father tells me he was always self-conscious of the holes in his education... he was self-taught and well-read, but there are advantages to having a hand guide you to the best sources of information and culture. Time spent finding is time not spent reading.

I guess my point is that a university education, while nice, is not in the cards for everyone. People who had other priorities besides primping and priming themselves for the great annual dog-show (applications season) will find their options limited and unappealing. People without financial backing or scholarship assistance just won’t be able to afford it. The single most common reason people don’t make it through college is, in other words, luck.


Which means that in terms of evaluating your value as a human being, whether or not you have a college education should probably not be factored in. What have you done? What are you doing today? Who have you helped, and who have you hurt?

There are so many other ways to measure ourselves against each other that have so much more meaning than our grades and our education level. To most companies, an employee’s education level matters far less than the degree to which they can be trusted. You can teach them to do the job, after all, but you can’t teach someone to give up kleptomania.

So much of it is in how we’re raised. From a very young age I was bombarded by challenges, creative and otherwise. I was offered opportunities for which my parents sacrificed immensely. R had a very different upbringing (she was the left-over consequences of a broken marriage, both of whose halves had remarried with new kids into the equation), and she paid the cost her parents weren’t willing to pay for her.

So the next time you find yourself walking down the street feeling like the world is on your plate, and you pass by someone bitching about the menial, un-fulfilling, redundant job they have to do every day for eight hours because they don’t have your degree...

Feel lucky, not holier-than-thou.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Error of Anti-intellectualism

{In the interest of keeping a rate of content happening, you can expect some of these longer, unfocused articles for awhile - I'm attempting to get a product out in time for the Christmas rush, and that's occupying most of my attention. Editing and proofreading is taking a back-seat. Ironically, this means that any comments you make on these articles may actually be integrated into the articles as ideas (with references, of course) before they are finalized. Enjoy the roughs.}

I would like to say that the 2008 campaign marked the death-throes of the American anti-intellectual movement... but I don't really believe it. The problem is partly that for all that University-goers feel that the hatred leveled their way is unjustified, the reasons for that hatred are not entirely without merit. The argument gets a little confounded, however, because the people who hate intellectuals also happen to lack the educational grounding necessary to understand the reason they hate who they hate, and the people they hate aren't actually the people they should be hating, because the people they should be hating don't exist.

The example I feel like exploring today is family values. There's been this tug-of-war going on between intellectuals and "family values" for years, and neither group is making much progress because the arguments used by both sides are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The right says "You hate families!" the left says "you're a liar!" and both groups are technically in the wrong. The right isn't lying, they're just mistaken. The left doesn't hate family values... far from it! The left longs for family values in a powerful, visceral way. We all do.

The only way to really understand what I mean is to go through university yourself. In your first year, you are torn (if you're part of the majority) out of a relatively comfortable home, one that probably has functional heating and cooling, a stove, and a bedroom that isn't doubling as the living room, kitchen and dining rooms. You are torn out of a family which, even if they fight a lot, at least understand each other and have grown accustomed to living with one another. You tell yourself that this is what you want, that "getting away from X" is the order of the day.

Then one day, you wake up and realize that you're living in a forced triple with two other men, both of who work out more regularly than they do laundry. Your life is mostly confined to a two-foot-square plot of land (where your desk chair is) and a repugnant cot you never take the sheet off lest you discover exactly how many generations of students bled, fucked and pissed in their sleep on that mattress before you came to town. You're never alone, the people around you are still acquaintances at best (though friendships form fast in that sort of arrangement... it's hard not to get to know people you live that close to), and you share a bathroom with twenty people, only some of whom flush.

You are surrounded by people, and totally alone.

The backlash reaction is interesting to watch. People start forming "family" groups among their peers, and I'd bet my left big toe that if you did a study of students who felt like they'd found "close friends" in college and graphed their academic performance against those who felt "alone," you'd notice a drastic correlation. Either way, however, by the time you graduate, you have become accustomed to separation from your family for extended periods of time. Siblings graduate and settle down thousands of miles away from each other and their parents. Everyone in a family might end up going to a totally different school in a totally different part of the world. They connect at holidays and chat sometimes over the phone. The family bond is still there, usually, and sometimes familial relationships even become more pleasant (it's harder to find things to fight about when you're distant and your daily activities can so easily be lied about). But they do not become more close. Distance increases.

The University system is the bane of traditional family values. But it has nothing to do with intent, and everything to do with an accident of design. It is simply the case that people going to University to obtain their education are consciously making a trade. The place where they grew up is being given up in favor of a brighter future, or in trade for knowledge they need to do whatever it is that they want to do. "Roots in the community" are great assets for a politician, but for an Engineer, teacher, Physicist or Economist your birthplace is about as relevant as your astrological orientation. Ever seen a "we hire only Cancers" sign? Didn't think so.

That exchange is more unpleasant than you can possibly imagine, and some students compensate by joining up with Fraternities or Sororities which give them a structure that college intrinsically lacks. Other students dedicate themselves obsessively to clubs or sports or other activities where they spend enough time around a specific group of people to form close bonds. Some students isolate themselves, and these usually wash out.

Students by and large have a few things in common. At any respectably ranked University, the majority of the students are all living in generally slum-like conditions for four (or more) years, racking up enormous debt and slaving away 60+ hours per week for zero pay. Meanwhile, they are constantly tested, criticized, bullied (not all professors are good professors, and not all students are friends), robbed (meal plans are essentially high-class pickpocketing and monopoly profiteering in one go), and generally treated like human chattel, the theory being that this kind of abuse builds character. In reality I'm fairly sure it's one of those "well, I put up with this when I was your age, so bend over and pick up that soap" things, but what do I know.

My point is that anti-intellectualism is cruel. These kids are not (mostly) sitting around in delux, furnished studio apartments with catered bars and slaves to do their bidding. They're sitting around in student tenement housing, crouched over a bunch of paper-work trying to draw Ven diagrams around the pot they're using to catch the water dripping through the ceiling. At night, the squirrels fight with raccoons in their ceilings, and if you can hear yourself over the heater's clogged fan, you're probably about to lose your voice.

I lived like that my last year, and let me tell you... I will take that over a dorm any day, any time. Besides... we got what we paid for and the roommates were amazing.

When people finish undergrad and move on to graduate school, they discover that their circumstances have not improved in any meaningful way. They may be receiving a stipend, but an annual stipend tends a) to have tuition taken out of it and go into the negatives (you still have to pay taxes on it) or b) be equivalent to waaaaaaaay under minimum wage. Living conditions tend to improve slightly (after all, you may be earning zero, but at least you're not earning negative forty thousand), and if you're working a side job you might even be able to split an apartment with only one roommate and still have a roof.

When someone graduates from these circumstances and goes on to get a job, they expect two things. First, they expect that the last however-many years made them a better person than they would have been had they opted to not undergo that particular brand of torture, and second, they expect to be paid more than someone who opted not to undergo that particular brand of torture, mostly so that they can pay off the several hundred thousand dollars of debt hanging over their heads. Incidentally, barring engineering and computing students, graduates generally end up making pretty shitty salaries for quite a few years after graduation. It makes you wonder why we do it.

Why do we do it?

Well, the answer to that is complicated. We do it to learn stuff. We do it to better ourselves and our understanding of the world around us. We do it because our minds do not fare well without a challenge. We do it because we're smart. We do it because we like to associate with certain kinds of people and college is a great place to meet them. Some few do it for the money, but much fewer than you probably think.

Many of us do it because our parents did it and believe it made them better people, stronger people, and smarter people. So they want us to do it to. Now that I've done it, I honestly do think it made me better, stronger and smarter myself.

I'm broke, mind you, and pretty soon I'm going to be broker as the student loans start coming due, but I had a free ride, so those mostly covered living expenses and are consequently manageable. But I honestly believe that my life is better, more manageable and more enjoyable for having done it. The people I call friend are better people, stronger people, and smarter people for having done it. The things I read are more complicated and the rewards they offer deeper. The intellectual resources I have to draw upon are vast, and most of them are even legal. I speak two foreign languages, one poorly, one terribly, but enough to find the bathroom, order coffee and ask where the nearest police-box is.

But still, you sometimes run into people who see the pride of having made it and think they're seeing arrogance. These people make me slightly ill. They remind me of the people who roamed the hallways in middle school beating up anything that looked like it might not have failed the last math test.

Intelligence has always been a liability. It is not human nature to easily comprehend that someone might literally be smarter than you.

I can personally list at least four people I know personally who I know are smarter than me, and I found this out through observation and conversation. Tiro is one of them, incidentally. My sister is another.

The ability to identify minds that are superior to your own (in one way or another) is an important skill and one you can only obtain by pushing the limits of your own abilities and keeping an eye out for those whose limits are farther out. If you've never found the outer limit of your capability, you will find that admitting to yourself that someone you know is smarter than you is hard. It is really, really hard. You will always find yourself thinking "if ____ I'd be ____ too," and it might even be true. But ____ didn't happen and you aren't ____ so you'll never know.

Actually, that might be the purpose of colleges and universities, really, when you get down to it. Pushing your limits and seeing how far you can go. If you find those limits, even if you're disappointed with what they are, then you have gotten out of higher education exactly what you needed to.

You may not like your place, but you learned it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Shame on you, Charter Communications

Charter Communications is now throttling BT traffic by blocking user connections to seeds. Their tech support staff is unaware of this because they and their supervisors have not been informed.

How do I know this? Because I tested several torrents twice, first unencrypted, then encrypted. Since the torrents identify possible seeds but cannot connect when unencrypted, and can connect when the data is encrypted, Charter is likely using the same (idiotic) choke software used by Comcast, as of a day ago or thereabouts.

Shame on you. I'm a paying customer. You did not notify me that you were changing the product you were selling me.

Unfortunately, you're a local monopoly, because despite the fact that the government paid for your infrastructure, you still (for some reason) have managed to obtain legal ownership of it.

So I'll keep using you, because I have to. But I'll be damned if I won't do absolutely everything I can to make your existence a living hell.

To everyone else out there, in the interest of saving you a few seconds on Google:

Basic instructions for encrypting BT traffic:

Azureus (now named Vuze):

On my part, I'm going to load up my torrents at night and max out my bandwidth with encrypted torrents in order to drain as much resources from Charter as I can. I suggest anyone else in the St. Louis area who is reading this do the same.

Charter may, however, choke your bandwidth if they feel that you're using too much of what you paid for. Sometimes I wish I was rich enough to use the U.S. legal system to sue.

huh. Come to think of it I know a bored intellectual property lawyer, I wonder if he's still unemployed and looking for a break. Maybe he'll take percentage-of-winnings.

Friday, December 5, 2008

American Communism

This may ramble a bit. I’m more or less thinking out loud.

It is also subject to editing without notice, I’m mostly putting it up so Tiro can get cracking on what I anticipate will be one hell of an oppositional article.

If you’ve read my blog regularly, you’ve probably run across the “Mixed Heritage” article wherein I discussed the mixed nature of our government. We are, as I have stated, a mixture of many different ideas about how to run a place, and this is a healthy way to be. If you haven’t read the mixed heritage article, you should do so, because I’m writing this on the assumption that (having read the mixed heritage article) you’re not going to assume I’m making an argument for the Stalinization of our nation.

Communism is a word being bandied about quite a lot these days, mostly in ALL-CAPS AND WRITTEN BY PEOPLE WHO HATEE BARAK HUSAIN OBAMA for no apparently logical reason. I should like to spend this second paragraph warning any of these people who happen to be reading this that they shouldn’t be here. Finding out what Communism is might lead them to have to reevaluate their position on something, which I gather can, in some individuals, cause seizures or spontaneous combustion. If “them” is you, please go somewhere else.

I will now proceed to strip several ideas down to their core principles. You may disagree with me if you like, but you’ll probably be wrong.

Capitalism: In the presence of a government actively ensuring competition and punishing unethical business practices (false advertising, theft, murder), The Market will produce the best possible outcome.

Socialism: Intrinsically, people have equal value, and society should pursue a more level distribution of wealth. (Suggested methods vary)

Libertarianism: In the absence (or minimized presence) of government, The Market will produce the best possible outcome.

Communism: Public ownership of the means of production is the best method by which to achieve a socialist utopia.

Anarchism: cops iz always takin’ my weed. Wtf man. Down with the man. (You think I’m kidding, and I’m about to say I’m kidding, but I’m not. I honestly believe this is the core belief of anarchists everywhere, in some form or another.)

So, with the exception of Anarchism (I’m kidding L, don’t kill me), I think we can agree I’ve been essentially fair to all viewpoints expressed above. Libertarianism and Capitalism (as core principles) differ in the degree of tolerated government interaction with the market, communism is a particular brand of socialism which seeks to produce the socialist ideal through a very specific course of action.

Now. You might be wondering what my point is. After all, Socialism and Communism are two great evils that have been put down like the dogs they are, right?

Not sure where to start, but China seems as good a place as any to get where I want to go with this, so let’s start there. China’s system is based on communism, and attempted very strenuously to hold to the communist party line through the tenure of Mao. After Mao, however, the system has integrated capitalist and (other) socialist elements at a cautious pace until now we face China across the table as our major economic (and military) rival.

Conversely, our system was based on capitalism, but we have included more and more socialist and communist principles along the way in order to prevent or repair holes torn in the market by reality. Examples? Anti-trust laws, welfare, social security and (here’s where people start shouting at me) stock options.

That’s right. Stock options.

Stock options are employees being paid, partly, in percentage ownership of the company they work for. What does that sound like? That sounds like communism. Does it work? Arguably pretty well! Employees who have mass amounts of stock in a company are more likely to be actively engaged in that company’s success. After all, if the company is worth more, so are they.

Yes, yes, there’s caveats, but when you get right down to it, stock options are capitalism taking a good long look at communism and cherry-picking a good idea out of all that useless, excess crap.

One could even make an argument that we’ve been actively engaged in subversive communist activities since the Dutch first started trading commodities on blackboards.

Essentially, when a company starts selling itself (the obvious sexual reference is actually not intended, for once), it stops being privately owned in any meaningful sense. Oil companies tend to be owned by millions of people. Problem?

The people working at the bottom of the chain can’t afford stock. Their wages do not fluctuate with company performance, so neither does their performance. They see CEOs at the top of the chain making more when the company is doing better, and they wonder “why does he keep getting a raise, and I can’t even make my medical bills?

With CEOs making salaries in a ratio of 411:1 them:worker or worse, you can kinda understand why the bottom rung is pissed. And there’s no pretending that distributing half of a CEO’s salary would not significantly increase the income of the rest of the employees. If a CEO makes a paltry 4 million annually in even a company that has a full thousand employees, each employee would make an additional 2,000 dollars each year if the CEO’s salary was reduced to only “mostly” extremely ridiculous.

This is why people think CEO salary caps are a good idea, and you’ve got to admit that from almost every angle they’ve got a pretty solid point.

There are, of course, a few economists (self-correctionists, I call ‘em, I think Tiro might be one) who believe that CEO salaries are a natural result of market pressures, and that forcibly reducing them will cause companies either to find ways to circumvent the law to offer bonuses and such and court the CEOs they want, or cause companies to base themselves in foreign countries to avoid the salary caps. I don’t know the technicalities of this route of argument, Tiro could better inform you and hopefully will in the comments.

I crunched some numbers today in response to a comment on Sodahead where someone claimed that a better way to reinvigorate the economy would be to offer all taxpayers a 1 million dollar tax rebate. Seems like a dumb idea, doesn’t it? His numbers don't quite add up, of course, but nonetheless:

If you crunch the numbers, it turns out that giving everyone in America (women, children, dependents, unemployed and most of the illegal immigrant population included) $2,000.00 each, is actually cheaper than the bailout plan by over half. It would cut down the rich-poor gap slightly, give the housing industry a leg up and give people some disposable income or at least a break from their credit cards. The car industries might not even need to be bailed if their customers weren't so damn broke, and if the rate of mortgage foreclosure is pulled back a bit, the lenders might be able to recover without government aid too.

Downside? People probably wouldn't buy American cars (they fail to compete with the foreign market in every meaningful way, especially in gas mileage and trade-in value), and given how the mortgage giants have been running their business up through now, chances are they'd still fail, and then where would we be? We'd have expendable income and an unemployment rate of "which way is Canada again?"

Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs are moving overseas and the service industry is overpopulated by teenagers and college students eking out a rent check. Eventually, (ad-absurdum) you’ll have two options for getting out of the serving-coffee business: make your living by investing in foreign markets, or die. Starting your own business will be impractical, as they’ll all be ritualistically devoured by larger corporations once a month, and while large chains distribute amazing deals nation-wide at affordable prices, they also don't buy locally, so if you want to get your goods into them, you'd best have a billion dollars behind you putting your product into instant international circulation. Best of luck. (The tone of bitterness is due to this being a very personal problem right now.)

Eventually, education in America will catch up to investment potential, and the only hindrance to new investment strategies will be distribution of wealth. At that juncture, it might not actually be unwise for the government to start "sharing" the wealth, perhaps by giving each Taxpayer an "investment fund" paid into directly by a percentage of their taxes, which they can use only to invest locally or abroad. Foreign infrastructures would get a huge boost from the influx of investment, Americans would see a huge influx of wealth and our Nation would become a venture-capital source the rest of the world can use to bring itself up to our standard of living. It's a pretty shiny win-win-win situation. A good place to be.

But there’s really only one way to get there, and that’s to grow the middle class until everyone is in it.

Which is really the point of the middle class, actually... it’s a comfortable level to live at that is attainable by just about everyone, if the system is balanced right. The best standard of living sustainable on an even playing field is essentially the definition of the middle class.

Which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that by growing the middle class, we’re becoming socialists. We just think that the best way to get to the socialist Utopia is a capitalist system tweaked to encourage the expansion of the middle-class. Ironically, we might be right.

So it’s about time we abandoned all this random dissociated hatred for “socialists” and “communists” and just started looking at what works and what doesn’t. Lumping the baby in with the bath water is what got us into this mess in the first place, and any good suggestion this late in the game is going to involve creative economic thought, not purism.

Purism never works, ever. It never has, and no matter how many times you end an argument by calling someone a socialist, it never will.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Princeton Proposition 8

Holiday season has seen Tiro and I being... well... lazy.

But in the spirit of me-not-stopping-my-devouring-of-turkey and you-still-getting-to-read-stuff, I think this deserves a special vote from us:

Give it a look-see, it's the best protest idea I've seen in years.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Funny Animals

What funny animals we be.

It takes some effort to accomplish this, but try, just for a moment. Look at yourself in the mirror, or at a friend (it's actually harder with strangers) and try not to see them as people. Try to see them as animals.

If you accomplish this, you will see what I mean. We are ugly, weirdly-colored, inconsistently hairy apes with bad posture. Compared to the sleek functional lines of a Lion or a Wolf, we look freakish and lame. I was noticing this today, and it made me wonder why I hadn't ever noticed it before. I dropped it, then manually reassembled the ability to see through the gauze, and was amazed at what the process made clear to me.

Essentially, every time we look at someone, we make a series of assumptions. Their posture, their clothing, their color, their expression, their hair-do, the state of their makeup... all these things become information. We don't even see them, we see what they mean.

If you can't get this exercise to work, there's a similar exercise that can help train your brain up for it. Look at the words you're reading right now and try to let them mean nothing. Attempt to actually see the words. See their shape. Reduce them to meaningless pictographs, and then attempt to make a decision about how pretty (or ugly) our written language is.

Hard, isn't it? When you look at these symbols, you don't see the symbols, you see what they mean.

Well, it's the same when you look at a person.

This is intuitive, if you think about it, and explains how cultures vary so widely in what they find attractive and unattractive, and even how our sense of what is attractive can change over time. It's all about what a certain appearance means to us.

But think about the greater implications of this.

Not only is everyone racist... Everyone is racist, sexist, and everything-else-ist (is that a word, yet?) against everyone else, including themselves (oddly enough) and their best friends. It is so damn hard not to see stereotypes when we look at people that we never realize we're seeing them. We see them all the time, and everywhere we look. We can't see the wall because the wall is so big that we've never seen anything else.

Snakes and Lions are both bloodthirsty predators, but lion cubs are "cute" and snake babies are "gross" or "scary." Odd, huh?

Even your friends suffer from a stereotyping of a sort. Think about it. You know someone really, really well. They go away for a year, become a totally different person, and come back. Who do you see, when you see them again? I run into this all the time with old friends (and enemies) from high school. I run into them, they presume I am the person I was when I last saw them, and everything becomes awkward and weird because they're talking to someone who isn't there. When I think about it, the feeling of bitter resentment, annoyance and (strangely) long-suffering paternal patience that boils up when I run into those situations is extremely similar to what I feel when I tell someone overseas that I'm Canadian to avoid a beating. It all comes from the same place and accomplishes the same thing.

On the other hand, with effort, you can sit down and stare at someone, and peel away those layers, and get down to that ugly-looking animal. It gets easier with time.

So maybe with practice we can learn to peel away only the layers we want to peel.

It's a dangerous process. Get in the habit of looking at pretty girls and seeing ugly animals, and you'll live a miserable life. But it might be worth experimenting with, because in stripping away those layers, sometimes you learn where, and what, they are.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mixed Heritage Addendum

I forgot to mention this in the "Mixed Heritage" article, and I feel it is a little too important to be added there as a comment:

In a proportional system, if the percentage of the vote backing the president drops too near 50%, small interest groups have incredible amounts of pull in the coalition. If a president has 51% of the vote and a group represents 2% of the population, they can make unreasonable demands and have them met, so long as the president wishes to retain his post.

Since in Israel, at least, government posts offer immunity to criminal prosecution (it can be voted out, but it's tough), and since (as aforementioned) corruption tends to be a problem in proportional systems, it is very *likely* that the president wants to hold onto power at almost any cost.

This is actually the chief reason why I am not the biggest fan of proportional systems, and why I would never suggest that the U.S. should adopt Israel's system. Components of that system are clever, but the consequences sometimes outweigh the benefits.


In the last eight years, America has lost sight of something.

America was never a nation. There's a nation named "The United States of America" but, of course, the nation itself is not America. America isn't a continent either. Sure, there's a continent named "North America" and a continent named "South America," but that isn't what America means when someone says it.

America is an idea.

When did we start fearing that America would go away, or be crushed by terrorism or oil addiction or any of these other petty problems. Sure, failure to coexist with our environment, failure to convert to alternative energy sources, failure to keep our government in line and our rights reserved... these things may one day destroy "The United States of America," but America is immune to them, much as the idea of Rome survived to this day, and the idea of Sparta still invokes images of Three Hundred.

Ideas are more important than actualities. Actualities are only the limited attempts by mankind to emulate ideas. Rome was only a free nation if you didn't happen to be a slave or a resident foreigner, and Sparta was one of the nastiest places to live in the history of the world, even for Spartans. People will live, fight and die for actualities only so far as they can be convinced that those actualities are the best existing representation of the idea they're looking to live, fight and die for.

The real crisis in America today is that people are starting to look at what we have become, and wonder if we're straying a little too far from the idea.

According to Gallup, about 10 days ago 84% of Americans thought the nation was headed in the wrong direction. The average on RCP for the time period leading up to 11/11 is 65.8%. That number is improved over previous averages.

The only way to get back on track is to start thinking about what America (the idea) really is. How do we get there? In what ways have we strayed?

Most importantly, the next time someone tries to take away our rights to provide us with more "safety" we need to ask ourselves if we'd rather live free, or live long enough to die in the pages of the book "1984."

Which brings us to the point, more or less: If Bush gets his way in his last few weeks of lame-duck-ness, that "next time" will be pretty soon. Please to be writing angry letters to your congressmen and women.

(Even if you're a firm believer that warrantless domestic surveillance is in the best interests of the Nation, you should probably consider that surveillance is costly, and that the warrant system is the method by which competent minds are allowed to determine which surveillance operations are worth spending money on. A friend of mine put it best last night over a board game: "If surveillance for terrorism is like searching for a needle in a haystack, Warrantless [surveillance] is like increasing the amount of hay.")

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On Great Oratory

"Great is our admiration of the orator who speaks with fluency and discretion." - Cicero

"Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions. We should be talking about a permanent revolution." - Aaron Sorkin via Sam Seaborn, The West Wing

Just a short post today, as I've been rather quiet lately.

As Maxwell mentioned, we're working on an article on the subject of same-sex marriage, which is requiring a lot more effort than many of the other posts here. In my work on the piece, I've been studying a number of speeches, articles and letters, and have even picked up a copy of "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student" (Connors & Corbett, 4th ed., 1999). Although I've had my share of formal and informal training in writing, most of it has been either creative writing and literary analysis or technical writing. Aside from a brief flirtation with debate in elementary school and a required public speaking course in high school, I have had almost no training in 'classical rhetoric.'

The more I study it now, the more I regret this. We often talk about the (supposedly) vital role of science and mathematics in our educational system, but what about rhetoric?

Personally, I believe that great orators themselves are the best teachers - and in my recent studies, the work of two individuals have consistently reappeared: that of John F. Kennedy and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While their names have both been in the news lately (you all know why - and I adamantly refuse to get any more into the subject that has so thoroughly dominated our entire national discourse that that!), I realize that I am still simply blown away by the power of their work every time I read it. And while both have their sound bytes and classic quotes, practically any sentence out of their work stands on its own as a monument to great oratory. I'll leave you with this, a line I came across recently, from Dr. King's Nobel Lecture, The Quest for Peace and Justice (the full text can be found here), and with a question: aside from these two greats, who are your favorite orators?


"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


- Tiro

Monday, November 17, 2008

Going through Oklahoma? A tip for you.

Today may be a little off-the-usual, but I've little else to do here and I don't have access to any of my reference materials or a library, so I'm not going to tackle anything serious until I get home tomorrow. It may be a couple days before you see the fruit of the upcoming article, incidentally. Tiro and I are diving into the subject of gay marriage headlong, and you can expect some exciting results. I expect Tiro's article should be ready soon, my own will probably come some time thereafter (traveling kills any attempt at conducting research).

As an aside, if anyone lives in a rural area or knows of an organization in a rural area who might be interested in spreading some articles around, Tiro and I are looking to make an actual tangible impact with these upcoming articles, and that means reaching an audience that doesn't already agree with us.

But that's all for later. Today, I am writing a review.

A hotel review, to be specific, for a place called "Travel Inn" in Claremore, Oklahoma.

And I should specify, I don't usually bother. This case is special.

After a long drive, there are really only a few things I require of a hotel. A bed, a bathroom, and an internally-controlled AC unit (if the weather isn't ideal). An internet connection isn't precisely necessary, but I do tend to prefer one, if I have options.

I expect to pay somewhere around 50 dollars per night to receive these basics, and if these are all taken care of, I don't consider that I have been ripped off.

So when the man behind the desk informed me that my night at Travel Inn would cost me 40 flat, I was initially slightly concerned. After all, a rate that low usually means something is terribly wrong with the room you're about to be given, or the competition in the area offers something they don't.

When I walked into the room, I wasn't surprised to see that the dresser was standing free in the middle of the room. ... but then I realized something, or rather a series of somethings.

1. The dresser was also the TV stand, and was positioned deliberately to allow one to watch TV while in bed.
2. The room came with both a refrigerator and a microwave, and no annoying mini-bar or taped door.
3. There were plenty of power outlets available because someone had gone to the trouble of actually plugging a surge-protector into the wall (You would think this would be common in hotels, it isn't, and it's amazing)
4. The decor is obviously all home-job, which explains the rate, but it's a pretty good home-job, and everything is clean, including (and especially) the bathroom.
5. The alarm clock is far enough from the bed that I can't whack the "snooze" button while I'm still sleeping.
6. Rather than a plethora of nonsensical adds, coupons and TV guides, the room comes with a simple (roughly 6x8) stand-up card with a Papa-Johns number (room delivery), a list of all channels, the check-out time, an assurance that there is coffee in the lobby and the number for the hotel.
7. When they said free wireless, they meant it, and if you don't like the hotel's wireless (who knows, you might just be that way), you have three others to choose from in the local area that reach your room.

The list rambles on a bit, but the essential point is that "Travel Inn" in Claremore OK is amazing, all the basics are handled and more, the room is clean, the rate is (much more than) reasonable and the next time I go to Houston I'm stopping here both ways.

This isn't bought or paid for, I just think it's nice to support businesses that are going above and beyond, and besides... as far as I'm concerned, this hotel totally redeems Oklahoma for that "scenic overlook" and puts the state back in my good graces.

... Oh! Also, I didn't have to haggle for that rate. I have worked at a hotel desk before, and I am more than capable of haggling if I need to, but honestly, if someone leads with their rack rate, I really appreciate not having to waste the time. I made one halfhearted attempt to add triple-A (reflex, but let's be honest, if you're running a clean, well-run hotel with in-room refrigerators and microwaves and your rate drops under 40, you aren't even making a profit on average) and then just signed myself in. It was nice not to have to expend the effort, so to speak.

And yes, that $40.00 included the tax, which was another nice surprise. My card was charged for exactly $40.00.

Never been quite this pleased with a stop on a long trip, before. ... halfway inclined to stay an extra day and check out the neighborhood (the price is right, after all) but I should be getting back if I want to have the prints ready for the Christmas stocking-stuffer rush, and I still need to find a laminating machine before I can do that. So, home I go.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


There's a peculiar comfort to traveling that comes from knowing that you aren't obligated to do any work at all. I remember it from my youth, when traveling meant a break from practicing the cello and doing homework. It wasn't that I never blew off my obligations while not traveling (quite the opposite), but while traveling there was no sense that I should feel guilty about the time I spent in that back seat reading a good book or toying around on a Gameboy. It wasn't as though I could really be doing anything else. Tetris is still a warm-fuzzy for me.

Traveling alone is rewarding for other reasons as well. Your schedule is broadly your own, particularly on the first day of a two-day trip. How long you drive for and where you stop for the night, these are things you have control over, and no one is on hand to second-guess you. You may pay for it in the morning but the reward can be worth it. In this period of enforced inactivity, you realize what things are really important to you. They are the things (and people) you miss while traveling.

The people you miss might surprise you. I remember trips where I found myself missing people I thought I disliked. I enjoy arguing, perhaps that's why. This trip the list failed to surprise me, however, as I've been missing them for quite some time now. I suppose in a sense I've been traveling for months now.

The things you miss usually don't surprise you... conveniences, things you forgot to bring, games, TV, books. This time I'm missing shampoo, but that's easy enough to fix. The activities you miss tend also to be about what you'd expect.

But the people I missed this time around really got me thinking.

I really do think I'm in a constant state of traveling. Really, the trips of the last few weeks have not come as a terribly great system shock, because in one sense or another I've been living as a guest for months, be it a guest on a sofa or a guest in my own house. I don't mind too terribly much and I don't feel too terribly guilty. After all, this time was given to me as a graduation gift where others received cars or (in a few rare cases) houses or expensive whatsits. I wanted time, and received it.

Economically, it may be an insensible option. I am teaching and writing, yes, but in general I'm racking up a rather large deficit which will eventually need to be handled. I am also, however, learning. I am becoming (through practice) a better writer. I am becoming (through teaching a five-year-old) a better teacher. In writing articles I educate myself more often than I suspect I educate my audience.

Travel time is a miraculous thing.

Really though, I think I'm turning this into an article because I wonder, from a philosophical standpoint, how many people are traveling, even now, without realizing it. How many people are sitting in apartments because buying a house feels like settling down? How many people are living out of suitcases, or breaking up relationships because they're getting too serious? It's an interesting conundrum. What makes a person happy enough that they want to settle down? People settle down because they have to all the time, that's not the same thing. I think people who get settled, rather than settling themselves, are stuck traveling for the rest of their lives. But really settling down, wanting to settle down in a place, I think that's a function of people.

Really, in all this time I've been traveling, I've had all the other comforts of life at hand. I've had the internet, soap, clean water, a bed (albeit a "borrowed" mattress on the floor, it is a rather nice "borrowed" mattress on the floor), clothing and a roof over my head. But people have been scarce. I've traveled literally thousands of miles on wheels in the last couple weeks to see people, and I'll likely travel a few thousand more (on wings) in the coming months to see more.

It really drives home the point, I think, which is that home has nothing to do with a place, or a particular pub, or a particular grove of trees. Home is where your people are.

And sometimes, you have to travel for a good long while to figure out who those people are.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2)

" I add this, that rational ability without education has oftener raised man to glory and virtue, than education without natural ability." - Cicero

As promised, the conclusion of the previous post.


The Anti-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Although many goods are better provided by the free market, opponents of voucher programs claim, education is not one of them. Direct competition for tax dollars would encourage schools not to develop innovating new ways of educating students, but rather to devote increasing amounts of funding to marketing and recruitment, while providing the minimum amount of educational quality necessary to attract students.

Additionally, as in other highly regulated markets, such as medical care, 'asymmetric information' problems may exist. In other words, parents may not know what an appropriate measure of 'quality' in education is, or they may not be able to determine the validity of claims made by schools.

As competition relies on the open market to set prices, it is almost certain that different programs will be available at different prices. If voucher programs are set up so that schools are paid a set per-student fee, parents would likely be required to pay the difference themselves, and thus schools would become stratified by socioeconomic status, with wealthier children receiving better educations. Conversely, if voucher programs pay either whatever is asked by schools, or if prices are negotiated between school administrators and government representatives, we no longer have a market based system; prices will become arbitrarily large in the first case, and the second case essentially puts us back where we started with publicly run schools.

2. Improving the current system

Another central pillar of the anti-voucher argument is that many of the benefits promised by voucher programs do not actually require such a program to exist; instead, they can be reaped by simply fixing the current system.

School choice programs already exist, both through charter school programs and through direct 'district wide' school systems, where students can attend any one of the districts public schools. For example, although primary and secondary education in New York City is run by a single Department of Education, different systems are in place in different boroughs. In Manhattan, the Bronx, and some areas of Brooklyn and Queens, students are not automatically sent to a specific high school, but must apply to the schools of their choice.

Such programs, opponents of voucher programs argue, deliver the benefits of competition promised by voucher programs, without many of their failings.

3. Subsidizing the wealthy

A central pillar of the pro-voucher argument is that, by giving parents a say in where their tax dollars are spent, vouchers offer parents and children a choice in where they will attend school - not necessarily so, opponents contend.

From an article by Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse, '[a]ccording to No Child Left expert Scott Young, 76% of the money handed
out for Arizona's voucher program has gone to children already in
private schools." (NOTE: As the article begins with a description of the various civil rights that the Bush administration has supposedly taken from US citizens, and proceeds to call NCLB everything from blatently racist to a tool of class warfare, I must be skeptical of this number. Personally, I'll give Mr. Palast the benefit of the doubt, and point out that even if the true number is different, there's still an important conceptual point to be had.)

The argument says that, in systems where private schools can still charge whatever they want, it's likely that, even with vouchers, lower income families that couldn't afford private schools still won't be able to afford them. Thus, children from wealthier families who were already in private schools will continue attending, but with government subsidized tuition, while children from poorer families will be left in public schools with even bigger financial troubles.

Of course, there are certain to be some families for whom private school will be affordable with the adoption of vouchers, but opponents claim that private schools can still discriminate based on "on the basis of prior academic achievement, standardized test scores,
interviews with applicants and parents, gender, religion, income,
special needs, and behavioral history" (from the NEA's Talking Points on vouchers).

4. Separation of Church and State

From a legal perspective, opponents of voucher programs argue that, as, according to one source, 85% of private schools are religious, voucher programs amount to an unconstitutional governmental subsidization of religious groups. (Strangely, I haven't seen much from voucher proponents claiming that requiring tax dollars to be spent on secular public (and especially charter schools) amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against religious groups.)

While many opponents may believe this whole-heartedly, at least as of 2002, the US Supreme Court does not. In the 2002 case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court constructed a 5-part 'Private Choice Test,' ruling that for a voucher program to be constitutional (quoted from the linked Wikipedia article):

- the program must have a valid secular purpose
- aid must go to parents, and not to the schools
- a board class of beneficiaries must be covered
- the program must be neutral with respect to religion
- there must be adequate nonreligious options

In the particular case argued, the court ruled that since non-religious schools were available, and parents were not required to choose a religious institution, the program was constitutional.

Of course, this ruling could be challenged, or the ruling as is could be used to argue that, if a specific program does not pass the Private Choice Test, it should be dissallowed.

5. Other arguments

As with the pro-voucher camp, there are many other arguments made in opposition to vouchers. Among them:

- Decentralized control of education may lead to disparities in education and educational quality.

- The creation of voucher programs may ultimately lead to more government control of private schools, and possibly to the teachings of the religious groups who sponsor many private schools. Some critics who espouse this argument oppose public funding of education altogether, on ideological grounds, and oppose voucher programs as well as the very existence of public schools.

- The use of free markets and consumer choice to allocate taxpayer money removes accountability to the actual payers (i.e. citizens in general), whereas the current public system keeps schools accountable to both federal and state governments as well as the local populace through the existance of school boards, and local referenda on budgets.

- On empirical grounds, opponents argue that there is no conclusive evidence that, all else equal, private schools actually do a better job of educating students, or, even if they do, if those benefits will be seen under various proposed voucher plans.


To conclude: as with many ideas, voucher programs seem great in theory, but may not actually work in practice.

There is empirical evidence on both sides of this argument (the literal question of "do voucher programs work?"), but results are often clouded by issues such as selection bias, methodological differences that make results incomparable, and other questions, such as "how do we define quality in education?"

The free-market conservative in me definately recognizes the possible benefits of actual competition between schools, but there are many troubling potential problems with essentially all voucher programs - personally, I think the most troubling is the possibility that vouchers will be largely spent on children who are already in private schools.

Then again, the conservative in me asks, "you mean, its a good thing that these people are paying for education twice?"

Once (or, if) we've agreed that education should be provided to all through a taxpayer funded system, it should simply be a question of asking what the best delivery mechanism is, and putting that in place. There are definite issues (not necessarily problems, but issues, certainly) with the current system, including the way allocation and pooling of funding affects quality, the effect of teachers' unions, the 'double taxation' of private school, and how, if at all, we should be using quantitative testing (standardized or not).

Hopefully, as more voucher programs, charter schools, and public system innovations are tried, and we gain access to more information on the results, the best course will become clearer.

For one particuluarly interesting example of this, take a look at The Equity Project (official site, Wikipedia article) -- the basic idea is to pay teachers $125,000 a year, and use teacher quality as the main driver of educational acheivement. The school is set to open September of 2009.

- Marcus Tullius Tiro

Miscellaneous Sources

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 1)

"A mind without instruction can bear no more fruit than can a field, however fertile, without cultivation" - Cicero

Earlier, the subject of education was raised - among other subjects, the issue of school vouchers was raised. Like many issues in politics, the subject of school vouchers is a complex one, where reasonable people can disagree, and even the facts themselves are sometimes unclear.

As discussed earlier, most governmental philosophies maintain a place for collectively funded education. If we agree on this, though, there is still the question of provision: should such education be directly provided by the government, in state-run schools, or should the government simply act as a 'single payer' (the fancy economics term for this, a sort of 'buyer side monopoly,' is monopsony) and purchase education on the open market, or should a combination of the two be used? Of course, the same question can be asked of any government service: should the government maintain its own military, or should it use taxes to hire private mercenaries, or both?

Ignoring the existence of school vouchers for the moment, the current system in the US follows mainly the first approach. To grossly oversimplify, all individuals are taxed, these monies are pooled at some level, and then spent to fund state-owned and operated schools for all the children in a community. Additionally, while students are required (under most circumstances) to attend school, parents can opt to send their children to a privately owned and operated school, so long as the school meets certain government standards, and the parents are willing to pay the prices charged by the private institution. Of course, should they choose this option, parents are essentially paying for their child's education twice, or are giving up the 'free' option of public schooling.

Voucher programs offer an alternative to this, with a simple mechanism - funding 'follows the child.' The specifics of programs are more complex in practice: some may place a cap on the tuition which may be charged, while others may simply pay a fixed amount of per-child funding to all schools. Regardless of the details, though, there are some fundamental concepts common to all voucher programs, and corresponding arguments for and against them.

(NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I attended a public magnet high school, the Bergen County Academies (school site, Wikipedia page). I leave it to you, our readers, to judge whether this has biased my view of the subject.)


The Pro-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Generally the central argument used by proponents of school choice, the 'competition' theory says that when schools, both public and private, must fight for students - and the government funding that follows them - tuition decreases, the quality increases, and innovation is encouraged. But is this really the case?

Testing this empirically is notoriously difficult, because of issues such as selection bias. Imagine a private school in a district has higher mean SAT scores than the public schools in the district. Does this mean that teacher quality is higher at the private school? Or does it mean that the students who tend to go there would score better no matter where they are? Or, does it mean that the private school simply teaches more to the SAT than to other tests or subjects? Or, do the students who go there tend to be from higher income families, and are therefore more likely to get outside tutoring and assistance for the SATs? Or, does the fact that a private school even exists reflect some factor unique to this community?

Nevertheless, we can examine these issues, and many studies have done so. In a review of the existing literature, Belfield and Levin (Belfield and Levin, 2002) examine 41 empirical studies, and find that "a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes." Of course, the study also cautions against the "validity of inference from point estimates to public policy."

Another natural consequence of the competition argument is that failing schools must be allowed to close, and, should a school close, both public and private entities should be given the opportunity to take over and reopen the school.

2. Empowerment

Another argument advanced by proponents of voucher programs is that of empowerment, on both an economic and a moral basis. Voucher programs, combined with policies that give public school administrators more freedom to develop their own curricula and approaches to education, allow the people 'on the ground,' those actually educating our children, to develop innovative approaches to the problems facing our educational system today. The needs of children in suburban Portland are different than the needs of children in south central L.A., proponents argue, and principles - and teachers as well - should have the freedom to address those needs differently, and they should be allowed to fail or succeed in the open market.

Additionally, supporters claim that voucher programs recognize that parents, not bureaucrats, are the ultimate judges of what is best for their children. By allowing parents to choose the school their children attend, voucher programs encourage parental involvement in education, which, according to some studies, has been found to have a significant, positive impact on educational outcomes (though there is at least one study, I believe, that has found the opposite result).

Incentives may be more properly aligned under a competitive system, as well. The past decade has seen a rise in the use of standardized testing and regulations, not least of all in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). Under such a system, powerful incentives exist to simply "teach to the test," a phenomenon that has been seen in response to NCLB, as well as the increasing importance of the Advance Placement (AP) Program, with its standardized exams. With a voucher program, as long as schools meet some minimum standards set by the government, the market - i.e. parents - ultimately decide what aspects are important, and may include standardized test scores, facilities, extracurricular offerings, job or college counselling and support, or a host of other factors.

3. Other arguments

There are many other arguments made in support of vouchers. Among them:

- Teacher unions hurt students, and may hurt teachers as well. As private school teachers are generally not unionized, this may also encourage public schools to be 'deregulated' away from being closed shops.

- Systems could be designed that reward parents for choosing less expensive schools, thus helping to control the costs of education on the whole. Such systems include Educational Savings Accounts, which allow parents to use the excess of the voucher minus school tuition to hire tutors, offset the cost of tuition later in the child's life, or cover other educational expenses.

- School choice teaches students democratic values through real-life experiences. Some proponents even point to studies that show private schools are more likely to teach civics than their public counterparts are direct evidence of this.

- Although the original idea of public education was to provide broad, universal education that would put all citizens on a more equal footing, the current system actually has the opposite effect, magnifying the socioeconomic disparities in our society.


Next post: School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2), which covers the major anti-vouchers arguments, and includes some concluding remarks.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro