Monday, February 27, 2006

The magic tax

Robert H. Frank, an economist at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University has the following suggestion.
Suppose a politician promised to reveal the details of a simple proposal that would, if adopted, produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings for American consumers, significant reductions in traffic congestion, major improvements in urban air quality, large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and substantially reduced dependence on Middle East oil. The politician also promised that the plan would require no net cash outlays from American families, no additional regulations and no expansion of the bureaucracy.

As economists often remind their students, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So this politician's announcement would almost surely be greeted skeptically. Yet a policy that would deliver precisely the outcomes described could be enacted by Congress tomorrow — namely, a $2-a-gallon tax on gasoline whose proceeds were refunded to American families in reduced payroll taxes. …

The gasoline tax-cum-rebate proposal enjoys extremely broad support. Liberals favor it. Environmentalists favor it. The conservative Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker has endorsed it, as has the antitax crusader Grover Norquist. President Bush's former chief economist, N. Gregory Mankiw, has advanced it repeatedly.

In the warmer weather they will have inherited from us a century from now, perspiring historians will struggle to explain why this proposal was once considered politically unthinkable.

Frank is the co-author, with Ben S. Bernanke, newly appointed FED chair, of Principles of Economics. Perhaps there's hope for us yet.

More on absorption

Today's Daily Dharma has another extract that's related to flow and absorption. (See The crisp simplicity of the moment.)
In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.... Zen is the "everyday mind," as was proclaimed by Baso (Ma-tsu, died 788); this "everyday mind" is no more than "sleeping when tired, eating when hungry." As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. We no longer eat while eating, we no longer sleep while sleeping. The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation which is miscalculation sets in.

—D.T. Suzuki, in Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery
Absorption in the act of shooting involves becomine one with the act, not being aware of the individual elements that one does to accomplish it. One is not focussed on one's breathing, one's fingers, the pulling in one's arm, etc. One is focussed on the shooting, along with the arrow and the target, as a complete activity. (At least I imagine that's the way it is. I'm not an archer, zen or otherwise.)

Thanks again, Rachel

Rachel has apparently become quite a fan of my blog. (See "Thanks, Rachel.") Here's her latest comment.
I honestly must say this is one of the most useful blogs I have ever come across. I am not just saying that to butter you up! I am doing my thesis paper for my master degrees [sic] and spent the last 12 hours (and 10 cups of coffee) researching this area topic [sic]. So many blogs have generic information but yours is different. I can actually apply some of this information to my works [sic]. No worries [sic] I will give you credit in my references. I took it upon myself to add you to my favorites and will visit back to let you know how my grade ends up. Many thanks! [link to advertised site].
For someone doing an MS project, it's surprising how poor her writing is.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The crisp simplicity of the moment

The Daily Dharma for Feb 26 from Tricycle.
It is often the case that whatever we are doing, be it sitting, walking, standing, or lying, the mind is frequently disengaged from the immediate reality and is instead absorbed in compulsive conceptualization about the future or past.
  • While we are walking, we think about arriving, and when we arrive, we think about leaving.

  • When we are eating, we think about the dishes and as we do the dishes, we think about watching television.
This is a weird way to run a mind. We are not connected with the present situation, but we are always thinking about something else. Too often we are consumed with anxiety and cravings, regrets about the past and anticipation for the future, completely missing the crisp simplicity of the moment.

— B. Alan Wallace, Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up
To get them daily by email sign up here.

There is a review in this week's New Yorker of two books that review the history of Happiness. It refers to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's fairly old study that
showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”—in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” [Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.] We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”
It seems to me that the Buddhist advice quoted above is to be in such a state of absorption no matter what one is doing.

On the other hand, it also seems to me that the examples given in the advice quoted above, although very widely used in Buddhist writings, are too simplistic. After all, when Csikzentmihalyi refers to flow, he is referring to the state one is in when one is absorbed in whatever it is that one is doing. But that includes thinking. Csikzentmihalyi studied creativity, and creativity is often quite conceptual. When one is writing (words, software, music, whatever), one may be completely absorbed in the process. (I can find myself completely absorbed when writing software.) But at those times, I'm not particularly aware of the motion of my fingers or the inflow and the outflow of my breath. So one may be walking and thinking at the same time—and the thinking may be very absorbing. One may be in a state of flow even though one is not aware of walking.

What the advice above was really about was to avoid obsessing about events that one can't control. Worrying about what might happen when one arrives at one's destination is not worth the brain power devoted to it. Just walk—or invent something while walking.

And now that I'm thinking about it, even absorption in physical activities is different from awareness of the mechanics of those activities. When one is deeply absorbed in playing music, one isn't aware the motion of one's fingers. When one is deeply absorbed in playing tennis, or running a race, or skiing, or virtually any sporting activity, one isn't aware of the mechanics of how one is performing the activity. In general, absorption brings one to a state of concentration on the activity itself—the music, or the tennis, or the basketball game, etc.—and not to the individual actions that make it up.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Thanks, Rachel

As those of you who write blogs—or read blog comments—know, there is a new (not really so new anymore) form of spam advertising: ads pretending to be blog comments. Here's one that sounds so sweet.
Sad to say I just got back from a dart tournament and decided to log in and do some surfing. I love your blog. It had some very good laughs. I am doing a paper on [link to advertised site] and have been downloading information for the last two hours. I don't know how I came across your blog but I am sure glad I did. It has set me back a little because I have spent the last 2 hours reading your archives. If you don't mind I would like to add you to my favorites so I can back again and read some more. Well I need to get back to [link to advertised site]. I am almost finished with it. Great job.

p.s some great points on your site
It was signed Rachel.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A note on how may work

This is a continuation of the entry immediately below.

Based on the description given on the web page and on the examples shown in the demo I attended, my guess about how's comparison algorithm works is as follows.

Since early in the history of computing a program called diff has been available on Unix. That program compares two files and, making the best match between them, displays the minimal changes (insertions and deletions) that would transform one to the other, i.e., the differences between them. This is the same algorithm that one uses when one compares one file to another in, for example, Microsoft Word.

But can't possibly run diff between a submitted paper and every site on the internet. So to cut down on the number of file-to-file comparisons they must make, they construct what they call a fingerprint of the paper. They don't say what the fingerprint consists of, but I would guess it is a list of the words in the document that are relatively infrequent. Then they look for other documents (or web pages) that include those words. They could do a Google search for that. Given the result of that search, they then run diff between each of the found documents and the submitted paper.

Automated grading tools may lead to more individual contact

Today I attended a presentation at school about a system that detects plagiarism. It was quite impressive. Submit a paper, and it finds sources on the web that match sections of the paper. It's something like a world-wide Google search for all segments of the paper. It even identifies excerpts in which synonyms were substituted or sentences added.

Of course, given such a system, students will run their plagiarized papers through it or a competing service to make sure that they won't be caught. This amounts to an arms race in cheating detection and evasion. That's certainly not the point of education. We shouldn't be spending so much time and energy on the mechanics of grading and on figuring out how to game the grading system and how to construct a grading system that is resistant to gaming.

The only real way to tell whether someone knows something is to talk to the person, as I do in all my classes. Submitting something is only the first step. The second step is explaining it in person.

So ironically, perhaps one of the positive consequences of automated teaching and grading tools is to encourage more direct person-to-person contact between teachers and students.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Supreme Court Rules that Religious Group Can Use Illegal Drug in their Worship Services

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports on yesterday's Supreme Court decision.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today that the adherents of a small religious group can continue, for now at least, to import and use an illegal drug in their worship services. The court, in a decision written by new Chief Justice John Roberts, held that the federal government had not adequately demonstrated that it had a compelling interest in banning what even federal prosecutors admit is a 'sincere religious practice.' …

The case involves a church, known as Uniao Do Vegetal or the Union of the Plants, that preaches a brand of "Christian spiritualism" that combines indigenous Brazilian beliefs with contemporary Christian teachings. A central tenet of the UDV faith is a belief that hoasca, a tea containing the illegal hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), is sacred and that its use connects members to God. …

[T]he government [had] argued that it had a compelling interest in protecting the health of UDV members and in preventing the recreational, non-religious or improper use and distribution of DMT. But the district court found that the government's interests in protecting health and preventing drug abuse did not trump the UDV's religious freedom to use hoasca.

News about the future

So much of what is reported as news is really about events that have not yet occured. Here's an example. Abortion Case to Test New Justices
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether a 2003 federal ban on the procedure that critics call 'partial birth' abortion is constitutional, setting the stage for its most significant ruling on abortion rights in almost 15 years.

Without comment or recorded dissent, the court granted the Bush administration's request to review a lower court's ruling striking down the law, which passed Congress overwhelmingly but has yet to be enforced.

The case will test the new balance of abortion opinion on a court whose membership now includes two Bush appointees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Given their conservative leanings and the court's past vote count on the issue, the federal ban's chances appear strong.
I don't think that any of the preceding is newsworthy. What is newsworthy is the following paragraph.
Arguing that an appeals court's invalidation of an act of Congress was worthy of the court's attention, the Bush administration persuaded the justices to take the case without one usual criterion for doing so -- a division among lower courts. Since the first appeals court struck down the law last year, two other appeals courts have followed suit.
But the article said nothing more about this. Do we know anything about how and why they decided to accept it? If so, that might be news. But the two column story as published, isn't.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Declassification in Reverse: The Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence Community's Secret Historical Document Reclassification Program

According to a report on the George Washington University web site
The CIA and other federal agencies have secretly reclassified over 55,000 pages of records taken from the open shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), according to a report published today on the World Wide Web by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Matthew Aid, author of the report and a visiting fellow at the Archive, discovered this secret program through his wide-ranging research in intelligence, military, and diplomatic records at NARA and found that the CIA and military agencies have reviewed millions of pages at an unknown cost to taxpayers in order to sequester documents from collections that had been open for years.

The briefing book that the Archive published today includes 50 year old documents that CIA had impounded at NARA but which have already been published in the State Department's historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States, or have been declassified elsewhere. These documents concern such innocuous matters as the State Department's map and foreign periodicals procurement programs on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community or the State Department's open source intelligence research efforts during 1948.

Other documents have apparently been sequestered because they were embarrassing, such as a complaint from the Director of Central Intelligence about the bad publicity the CIA was receiving from its failure to predict anti-American riots in Bogota, Colombia in 1948 or a report that the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community badly botched their estimates as to whether or not Communist China would intervene in the Korean War in the fall of 1950. It is difficult to imagine how the documents cited by Aid could cause any harm to U.S. national security.
Some of the now-secret (late 40's and early 50's] documents along with communications with the government about the reclassification program are also available on the webiste.

The Journalistic Triumph of Michael Crichton

Scientific American comments on the journalism award given to Michael Crichton by American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
In these days of James Frey's phony memoirs becoming best-selling nonfiction, why shouldn't a novel full of half-truths and misleading nonsense win a journalism award? And so in that spirit of 'reality sucker-punching irony into submission,' let's have a round of applause for Michael Crichton, whom the American Association of Petroleum Geologists has honored with its Journalism Award for those hard-hitting journalistic classics State of Fear and Jurassic Park. (See Editor & Publisher for its note on this.)

We all know Jurassic Park, which blew the lid off the secret dinosaur cloning activities of that billionaire industrialist operating an unlicensed theme park. Thanks to Crichton's enterprising reporting on that scandal, the incidence of velociraptor attacks has plummeted to an historic low. State of Fear didn't sell quite as well, but it is a best-seller, and I wrote about it back in December 2004. Or as the New York Times put it recently:
'State of Fear,' dismisses global warming as a largely imaginary threat embraced by malignant scientists for their own ends.

'It is fiction,' conceded Larry Nation, communications director for the association. 'But it has the absolute ring of truth.'

'Absolute' except for the made-up and wrong parts, that is.
In confirmation of the effects of global warming, Scientific American has a story on the melting of Greenland's gladiers.
The glaciers in southern Greenland are melting and moving. In fact, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier went from standing still in 1996 to flowing at a rate of 14 kilometers a year by 2005, making it one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. According to a new study, all of Greenland's coastal glaciers are already experiencing or may soon experience such speedups, meaning that Greenland's ice will contribute even more than expected to the world's rising seas.

"It takes a long time to build and melt an ice sheet, but glaciers can react quickly to temperature changes," notes Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Greenland is probably going to contribute more and faster to sea level rise than predicted by current models."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Professional journals

One of the most widely used metrics of the significance of published work is its citation rate, i.e., how frequently it is cited by papers that follow. Consequently, an apparently useful metric for journals is the citation rate of papers that it publishes.

I am a (very minor) author on a paper that was just accepted by the Knowledge and Information Systems (KAIS) journal. The following paragraph appeared in the acceptance email message.
Given that KAIS has established itself as a premier journal in knowledge systems and advanced information systems, and many of the papers published in the journal have been influential in their respective topics, I ask you to try and cite at least 3 to 5 recent, relevant papers from this journal in your final manuscript. Such citations will promote the journal's impact factor and will in turn help your own paper's influence.
On a related topic, Springer charges $679/year for access to this journal. If authors wish to make their papers available online, Springer will accommodate. It has an ''open choice'' program. For only $3,000, any paper will be made available online for free. I think both of those prices are outrageous. I can't understand why we continue to allow journal publishers to get away with it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

About those cartoons …

Robert Wright in The New York Times makes an interesting point regarding the cartoons of Muhammad, namely that what was missing was self-restraint. With freedom of speech comes the responsibility to respect others' feelings. (Read it soon or they will start to charge for it.) Wright's main point is to disagree with the position that
in the West we don't generally let interest groups intimidate us into … "self-censorship."

What nonsense. Editors at mainstream American media outlets delete lots of words, sentences and images to avoid offending interest groups, especially ethnic and religious ones. … [S]elf-censorship is not just an American tradition, but a tradition that has helped make America one of the most harmonious multiethnic and multireligious societies in the history of the world.

So why not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.

Of course, it's a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it's going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor, along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism.

Some Westerners say there's no symmetry here — that cartoons about the Holocaust are more offensive than cartoons about Muhammad. And, indeed, to us secularists it may seem clear that joking about the murder of millions of people is worse than mocking a God whose existence is disputed.

BUT one key to the American formula for peaceful coexistence is to avoid such arguments — to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn't too onerous. We ask only that the offended group in turn respect the verdicts of other groups about what they find most offensive. Obviously, anti-Semitic and other hateful cartoons won't be eliminated overnight. (In the age of the Internet, no form of hate speech will be eliminated, period; the argument is about what appears in mainstream outlets that are granted legitimacy by nations and peoples.) …

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative blogger and evangelical Christian, came up with an apt comparison to the Muhammad cartoon: 'a cartoon of Christ's crown of thorns transformed into sticks of TNT after an abortion clinic bombing.' As Mr. Hewitt noted, that cartoon would offend many American Christians. That's one reason you haven't seen its like in a mainstream American newspaper.

Or, apparently, in many mainstream Danish newspapers. The paper that published the Muhammad cartoon, it turns out, had earlier rejected cartoons of Christ because, as the Sunday editor explained in an e-mail to the cartoonist who submitted them, they would provoke an outcry. …

[T]he American experience suggests that steadfast self-restraint can bring progress. … Peace prevails in America, and one thing that keeps it is strict self-censorship.

And not just by media outlets. Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you've walked in the shoes of other people, you can't really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can't really know what would and wouldn't offend you if you were part of their crowd.

The Danish editor's confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing … the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.

'Flock of Dodos'

"[Randy Olson's] film, 'Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,' is the latest on the debate over intelligent design and evolution. …

"Natural selection teaches us that when an environment changes, the species that don't change with it run the risk of extinction. The media environment in the United States has changed drastically," Olson said. Intelligent design advocates understand the rules of new media, but evolutionary scientists are "a huge flock of dodos when it comes to communications," he said.

And evolutionists agree with him. Pro-evolutionist Kansas writer Pat Hayes wrote after seeing the movie: "If scientists and supporters of reason do not begin to engage the public and learn to more effectively communicate their message, Olson makes a strong case that (the dodos) could be us."

Even though Olson himself is clearly pro-evolution, he said his heart is still in Kansas, which kept him from taking shots at intelligent design supporters. "I respect people of character who are willing to stand up and speak their mind for what they believe in, on either side of the fence," he said. "This is a fairly embarrassing film for scientists; the [evolutionists] are very arrogant and obnoxious."
Someone should bring it to LA.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

You're a Spy

Fred Kaplan in Slate says that
if the Bush administration's interpretation of espionage law is upheld, then everyone is breaking the law, all the time. …

[If you have ever read leaked classified information in a newspaper or on a web site or heard it on the radio or television] the attorney general could go after [you] since the espionage statutes say anyone who receives certain classified information can be prosecuted.
This is relevant because the attorney general is prosecuting people on essentially those grounds right now. See Kaplan's story.

FSF/UNESCO Free Software Directory

From the FSF/UNESCO Free Software Directory
The Free Software Directory is a project of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). We catalog useful free software that runs under free operating systems — particularly the GNU operating system and its GNU/Linux variants.

Licenses are verified for each and every program listed in this directory.

The Directory now has a web interface for entering or updating packages. If you have a favorite free software package that you'd like to see included in the Directory, please consider writing up an entry.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Justices Skeptical of 'Friends' Suit

From the Los Angeles Times
The California Supreme Court appeared dubious Tuesday that a former writers' assistant for the television show 'Friends' suffered sexual harassment because of raunchy, sexual comments the show's writers made while producing scripts.

During a hearing in Sacramento, two of the state high court's justices [Justice Joyce L. Kennard and Chief Justice Ronald M. George] observed that Amaani Lyle, 32, was warned before she was hired for "Friends" that she would be subjected to sexually explicit talk in the writers' room. …

Only one of the court's justices challenged that argument. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar suggested the writers might have gone too far. …

Werdegar observed that Lyle maintained the writers' conversation often "had nothing to do at all with writing 'Friends' " and asked whether a jury would have to determine what pertained to the show and what was said and done for the writers' "personal gratification." …

The California Supreme Court took … will decide … within 90 days [whether] Lyle vs. Warner Bros.(S125171) [should be heard by a jury].

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Resveratrol prolongs life

From Scientific American
An organic compound found in grapes, berries and some nuts extended the life span of fish in a recent study. Nothobranchius furzeri lives an average of nine weeks in captivity but lacing its food with resveratrol boosted longevity by more than 50 percent.

Previous research had shown that resveratrol prolongs the life span of yeast and insects, but this study marks the first proof of its antiaging effects in a vertebrate.

Supreme Court to decide whether 'Friends' series sexual harassment trial should proceed

The case concerns Amaani Lyle, 32, whose sexual harassment lawsuit has landed before the California Supreme Court. Lyle alleges the raw sexual remarks that peppered work sessions and conversations added up to harassment against women. …

Levin [attorney for Warner Brothers, producer of Friends] is asking the justices to reverse an appeals court that said jurors should hear Lyle's case. …

The appeals court, in allowing the case to go to a jury, said the creative process was protected speech, but added that Lyle has a right to try to prove that the vulgarities strayed beyond that creative process.

'To the extent defendants can establish the recounting of sexual exploits, real and imagined, the making of lewd gestures and the displaying of crude pictures denigrating women was within the scope of necessary job performance and not engaged in for purely personal gratification or out of meanness or bigotry or other personal motives,' the appeals court wrote in 2004, 'defendants may be able to show their conduct should not be viewed as harassment.'

The Legal Aid Society's Employment Law Center in San Francisco told the court in briefs it sides with Lyle, saying harassment laws are not automatically voided in a television studio.

The Los Angeles Times and the American Society of Newspaper Editors warned of a chilling effect on the exchange of ideas and information if Lyle wins.
If the trial is allowed to proceed, the issue to be argued is whether the lewd conduct of comedy writers is "within the scope of necessary job performance and not engaged in for purely personal gratification or out of meanness or bigotry or other personal motives." When the appeals court put it in these terms, it seems to put the Supreme Court on the spot. That decision is the sort of decision that juries are asked to make, i.e., a matter of fact. So my guess is that the Supreme Court will let the trial go on. Then we will be back at the starting point.

My guess then is that the defendants will be able to make a case that the writers' lewdness is a normal (but necessary?) part of the creative process and that the writers harbor no ill will toward women. It will then be interesting to see what the jury does (assuming there is a trial) and whether that decision is appealed. We will probably hear more of this case.

More about intellectual honesty and the Bush administration

They have none. But that's not news. From The Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.
The President's 2007 budget includes two proposals that risk corrupting federal budget rules in order to facilitate passage of Administration tax cuts. One proposal calls on Congress to adopt a new scoring convention that would make the cost of extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts disappear; under this proposal, legislation to make these tax cuts permanent would be officially "scored" as having zero cost. The other proposal would promote a dubious technique for assessing tax policy changes that, depending on the assumptions used, could be used to manufacture cost estimates showing various tax-cut proposals as having little or no cost.

The first proposal, which also was included in the Administration�s budget last year, proposes that Congress change its rules for making its official "baseline" projections and assume that the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 are permanent, even though they are slated to expire by 2010. The current baseline projections follow the law; they consequently assume that these tax cuts will expire, as scheduled. Thus, legislation to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent is now scored as reducing revenues by $1.6 trillion over the next ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. If, however, the cost of extending these tax cuts is included in the baseline projections as the Administration proposes, then legislation to make these tax cuts permanent will be scored as having no cost whatsoever.
I guess this is one way to make the fiscally conservative Republicans feel better about making the tax cuts permanent. Since it costs nothing, why do it. In fact, according tothis approach, not making them permanent would be counted as a tax increase!

Evaluating colleges and universities

Four posts down, I copied excerpts from a NYTimes article about "whether standardized testing should be expanded into universities and colleges to prove that students are learning and to allow easier comparisons on quality."

In fact, major research Universities base their reputation on the prominence of their research faculty and not on the quality of their undergraduate education. Schools like mine pride themselves on providing education to the masses. When my school tries to puff itself up, it points to successful graduates (e.g., an Olympic gold medal winner) and to those faculty who make a name for themselves in the research world despite teaching at a non-research university. My college (Engineering and Computer Science) likes to point to the US News survey when we come out well on it.

I don't like standardized tests for this sort of thing. But they may be a useful way of measuring the quality of graduates of schools like those in the Cal State system.

As part of our preparation for accreditation (which has taken much more time than the effort is worth), we require our students to take the MFAT in Computer Science. These are tests (like mini-GRE's) that test students in their major fields. I would be interested to see how all schools in our class do on these tests. I would also be interested to see how all schools in our class would do if all graduates had to take the MFAT equivalent of a mini-morning GRE, which tested language and reasoning skills.

World public opinion: who loves whom this Valentine's Day

From World Public Opinion
A major BBC World Service poll exploring how people in 33 countries view various countries found not a single country where a majority has a positive view of Iran's role in the world (with the exception of Iranians themselves).

Views of Iran are lower than the US, although the US continues to get low marks, as does Russia. Views of China, France, and Russia are down sharply compared to a similar BBC World Service poll conducted at the end of 2004.

Japan is the country most widely viewed as having a positive influence, and Europe as a whole gets the most positive ratings of all.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Support the Truth in Initiatives Campaign

The Courage Campaign | A new era for California Progressive politics is organizing an initiative that would require
A Statement by the Legislative Analyst of 25 words or less that describes the nature and interests of the principal financial support or opposition to each future ballot measure, including cumulative contributions to all campaign committees and independent expenditures. Such descriptions will be based on the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Examples include, “Pharmaceutical Industry,” “Insurance Industry,” etc.
I'm supporting them.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Standard Tests for Colleges?

From New York Times.
A higher education commission named by the Bush administration is examining whether standardized testing should be expanded into universities and colleges to prove that students are learning and to allow easier comparisons on quality. …

[P]ublic reporting of collegiate learning as measured through testing "would be greatly beneficial to the students, parents, taxpayers and employers" and that he would like to create a national database that includes measures of learning. "It would be a shame for the academy to say, 'We can't tell you what it is; you have to trust us,' " [Charles Miller, a business executive who is the commission's chairman] said. …

Kati Haycock, a commissioner who is director of the Education Trust in Washington, which has supported standardized testing, said in an e-mail message: "Any honest look at the new adult literacy level data for recent college grads leaves you very queasy. And the racial gaps are unconscionable. So doing something on the assessment side is probably important. The question is what and when."

Jonathan Grayer, another commissioner, who is chief executive of the test-coaching company Kaplan Inc., said that with so many students in college and so many tax dollars being spent, "it is important for us to seek some type of knowledge about how much learning is going on." …

"The unanswered question in higher education is: How good is the product?" said Robert Zemsky, a commission member who is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. "A growing number of people are beginning to want answers. What higher education is about to learn is that they can't play the 'trust me' game anymore."

Part of what is driving the demand for accountability is money. Ms. Spellings [Secretary of Education] has said that about one-third of the annual investment in higher education comes from the federal government and that officials know very little about what they are getting in return.
In my department (Computer Science) at Cal State, Los Angeles, we have been spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for accreditation. A simple test would be much better.

Love yourself

The practice of metta, uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. According to the Buddha, 'You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.' How few of us embrace ourselves in this way! With metta practice we uncover the possibility of truly respecting ourselves. We discover, as Walt Whitman put it, 'I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness.' --Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness

Monday, February 06, 2006

U.S. opening some private mail

U.S. officials are opening personal mail that arrives from abroad when they deem it necessary to protect the country from terrorism, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman said Monday.
This was reported a month ago. I hadn't heard it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Jesus, The Teenage Years"

A Google ad for a poster called "Jesus, The Teenage Years" showed up on my blog—presumably because of my post about Lorenzo Albacete three posts down. (The Google ads are in the sidebar on the right. Scroll down to see them. This one may be there now.)

I assume it is intended to be pro-Christian. (I believe it is intended to help Christian parents who have teenage children.) But I can imagine that some Christians would be offended. Is this offensive? It's not critical in the same way that the cartoons showing Muhammad are critical. But it does show Jesus with a belly tattoo, a shaved head, and something of a self-satisfied teenage smirk.

Would Moslems be offended by a comparable poster depicting "Muhammad, the Teeneage Years?"

According to the web site
The bible says nothing about Jesus from the time he was 13 until he was 28. Its pretty clear, though, that Jesus experienced the same challenges that any child would face while growing up.

What were his struggles like when his body was developing and he became aware of sex?

What was Jesus schooling like?

Since the Bible is silent on Jesus' teenage years, we get to think for ourselves about what he was like.
I wonder what traditional theologians would say.

More on faith as a source of knowledge

Two posts down, I discussed Lorenzo Albacete's op-ed piece in the NY Times in which he discussed the problem with taking faith to be a source of knowledge about the world. The intelligent design debate is a good illustration. And now some intelligent design advocates seem to be seeing the problem as well. There is a bill in the Utah legislature that would require a disclaimer at the start of lessons about evolution. Surprisingly in a state as religious and conservative as Utah, the bill is running into problems. It has passed the state senate, but leaders of both parties in the house have come out against it.
Stephen H. Urquhart, a Republican from southern Utah whose job as majority whip is to line up votes in his party … announced last week that he would vote against the bill.

"I don't think God has an argument with science," said Mr. Urquhart, who was a biology major in college and now practices law. …

Opponents of the bill, including State Senator Peter C. Knudson, the Republican majority leader, openly laugh at talk [that claims that the bill is not about religion].

"Of course it's about religion," Mr. Knudson said.
Of course, not everyone agrees that we should keep religion out of science. According to the article,
Missouri's legislature is considering a bill requiring "critical analysis" in teaching evolution. An Indiana lawmaker has called evolution a type of religion and proposed a bill banning textbooks that contain "fraudulent information."
But Utah is a state of Mormans, which is not the majority religion in this country. That makes them a bit more cautious.
Enthusiasm for [school prayer] has been muted or ambivalent, said Kirk Jowers, a professor of political science and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Professor Jowers pointed to the awareness among Mormons of their religion's minority status in the nation and world.

"It was kind of a realization that if you push to have prayer in school, then outside of Utah, the prayer would not typically be a Mormon's prayer, so is that road you want go down?" Professor Jowers said.
Amazing how one becomes more aware of the dangers of majority totalitarianism when one isn't in the majority.

Coin constructions

Here are some amazing coin constructions.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Knowledge and Love

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Lorenzo Albacete, a Roman Catholic priest whom I admire, plays spin doctor to Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical on love.

First he does a fine job of laying out the position of those who fear religion.
Benedict's conversations with nonbelievers have convinced him that their major concern about Christianity is not its 'other-worldiness' but the very opposite. For them, what makes Christianity potentially dangerous as a source of conflict and intolerance in a pluralistic society is its insistence that faith is reasonable — that is, that it is the source of knowledge about this world and that, therefore, its teaching should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike.

The Christian faith faced a similar criticism before, Benedict has argued, when it first came into contact with the religious and philosophical world of the Roman Empire. The Roman world celebrated religious pluralism and was willing to welcome Christianity as an ethical or 'spiritual' option, but not as a source of truth about this world — that was considered to be the realm of the philosophers.

At that time, Christianity would not accept a place with the religions of the empire. It saw itself as a philosophy, as a path to knowledge about reality, and not primarily as a source of spiritual or ethical inspiration. The problem was that it claimed to be the only path to full knowledge about the meaning and purpose of life.

Indeed, throughout history Christians have used this claim to justify their intolerance of other views, even turning to violence in order to affirm and defend their idea of what is true. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us that this unhappy tendency was not limited to the Christian faith, but seems inherent in religious belief. If a god offers absolute truth, then those who disagree with that god's teachings are enemies of the truth, and thus harmful to society. It makes no difference whether the intolerance comes from a Christian god, who punishes countries and cities with natural disasters, or a Muslim god, who encourages terrorists to kill the innocent.
Right on target.

But then less convincingly he argues that the encyclical should be reassuring.
Hence the pope's insistence on the importance of emphasizing that God is, above all, love, and that love and truth are inseparable. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we in turn must share with others."
Albacete clearly sees the problem with a religion that insists that faith "is the source of knowledge about this world." But it's not at all clear to me that Benedict XVI agrees with this diagnosis.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Albacete wrote this piece not only as an attempt to present Benedict XVI's encyclical to the world as secular-friendly but also as an appeal to Benedict XVI himself, urging him to confirm the position that he doesn't hold faith to be a source of knowledge about the world. I doubt that Benedict XVI will respond positively to that appeal. I hope I'm wrong.

I also hope that other religious leaders would respond positively to Albacete's message. I'm not optimistic that many will.

On offensive cartoons of Muhammad

From the New York Times.
In response to criticism of offensive cartoons of Muhammad, State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, reading the government's statement on the controversy, said, 'Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images,' which are routinely published in the Arab press, 'as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.'

Still, the United States defended the right of the Danish and French newspapers to publish the cartoons. 'We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view,' Mr. McCormack added."
I agree on all counts.

I also agree that it would be better for everyone if we lowered our voices a bit.

I also think the Bush administration should do more to support free speech at home. For example Cindy Sheehan and Beverly Young were both removed from the capital visitors gallery where they had come to listen to Bush's speech. Their offense? They wore anti- and pro- Bush T-shirts. (The Capital Police chief has since taken responsibility. I suspect it goes higher than that. See also the recent uproar about the Bush administration's effort to silence NASA scientists about global warming.)

I also wish the Muslim world would refrain from its practice of anti-Jewish name-calling. Perhaps this experience will help them understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of that sort of thing.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Arianna Huffington: How the Democratic should have responded to Bush

Arianna Huffington has a nice blog post that talks about Jack Murtha's reply to Bush.
Murtha's response, presented at a press conference today and in a letter sent to President Bush, contains a very specific, four-point strategy for changing course in Iraq and 'reinvigorating our global anti-terrorism strategy.'
Bush had said, "Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy." Murtha replied, "Hindsight alone may not be wisdom -- but refusing to learn from past mistakes is not wisdom either." The rest of what he says makes sense also. And it is very credible.
Last night on Hardball, Chris Matthews asked Joe Biden to explain how it is that the American people are "worried about abuse of this NSA spying at home," "want to bring the troops home," and "don't think [the war] was worth it to fight... And yet, when you ask them 'Who do you trust on terrorism and security,' they say the president, who seems to lose on each particular, but somehow wins on the general question of security."

Biden blamed it on the lack of a clear Democratic leader.