Aug 31, 2008

Gustav's dubious distinction

No, not the lovely Swedish name.

Katrina's partisan value became apparent only in the aftermath.

Gustav, on the other hand, is the world's first fully pre-politicized hurricane.

finished at least

Forty movies in one crazy summer.

Though I'd like to say I'm a better person because of my summer of film, after finishing with Robot Monster, I can't be sure.

"the breakdown of American cinema"

While awaiting the disappointment that was Hamlet 2, the wife and I were forced to sit through an excruciating trailer for An American Carol. (I'm not embedding it, or even linking to it. If you wish to subject yourself to torture, you're going to have to do it yourself.)

The plot, as summed up by Wikipedia, as of this morning at least:
Charismatic left-wing activist and filmmaker Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is campaigning to end the celebration of the Fourth of July. Malone truculently argues to the American people that America's past and present are offensive, and therefore should not be celebrated. Malone is then visited by three ghosts, George Washington, George S. Patton, and John F. Kennedy, who try to make him rethink himself and America. Some critics are calling this the breakdown of American cinema and is only a cashcow meant to draw in ignorant right wing fascists. These critics should learn to write a coherent sentence. 'Some critics are calling this...and is only a cashcow' my scrawny republican ass.
Open source = God's honest truth.

Aug 29, 2008

Hamlet 2 wastes its premise

I wanted to enjoy Hamlet 2, since I love Steve Coogan to death. Yet his histrionics and patheticness can't save the film from sloppy writing, lazy satire, and insufficient backstory. (Why, really, is the protagonist living in Tucson? What really caused his fall from grace? If the movie covered either topic, I don't remember--its first half was that listless.) Sadly, Coogan not only has to affect an American accent, but adopt American comedy habits, which mostly means mugging rather than wit.

Go watch (or rewatch) "Knowing Me Knowing You" or "I'm Alan Partridge" or Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and forget this ever happened.

viruses, the origin of life, and intelligent design

I've blogged many times about the role viruses play in evolution, particularly Endogenous Retroviruses, or ERVs, which insert bits of genes into their hosts. Sometimes beneficially.

This week's NewScientist gives a rundown of some of the latest research into viruses [sub. req.]. The shorthand version: they play a much larger part in evolution than anyone has imagined.
[Patrick] Forterre and others have since built up evidence that early life was a period of wild biochemical experimentation in which molecular systems were constantly being invented and thrown together into new and increasingly complex ensembles (Virus Research, vol 117, p5). Once cells evolved, the experimentation continued, driven by innovation and gene transfer by the first viruses. The result was the creation of numerous alternative living systems, built up from random combinations of the available components. Only three of these systems survive to this day in the form of the three domains of cellular life; much of the rest lives on in the virosphere.

That puts viruses right at the heart of early evolution. "If you consider that viruses have always been more abundant than cells, you should conclude that the flow of genes has always been higher from viruses to cells," says Forterre. "Given this, it should not be surprising that major innovations could have occurred first in the viral world, before being transferred to cells."
Humans aren't immune (couldn't resist):
ERVs have been known of since the 1970s, but the full extent of their infiltration did not become apparent until 2003, when genome sequencing revealed that our DNA is absolutely dripping with them. At least 8 per cent of the human genome consists of clearly-identifiable ERVs. Another 40 to 50 per cent looks suspiciously ERV-like, and much of the rest consists of DNA elements that multiply and spread in virus-like ways. Taken together, virus-like genes represent a staggering 90 per cent of the human genome.
You may be the product of intelligent design. Thing is, the designers were viruses.

Olympia School District tidbits

1. The Olympia School District kicked off another year with its annual Learning Improvement Days, this Monday and Tuesday. Andrea Peterson, 2007 Teacher of the Year, gave an inspirational and humor-filled speech about the necessity of relationships to teaching, and how in the new "Three R's," Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, the latter gets short shrift despite its foundational importance.

I'd have more detailed comments, but my hard drive was destroyed in a series of frightful noises.

2. We have two new School Board members, if you hadn't already heard: Eileen Thomson and Mark Campeau. They were appointed by the remaining three, in order of seniority: Carolyn Barclift, Frank Wilson, and Allen Miller. Now that "crisis mode" is over, it's time for the District to have a thoroughgoing discussion of our values, goals, and weaknesses.

3. No Child Left Behind has caught up to two district schools, The Olympian reports:
Fifty-seven districts and 628 schools statewide are listed as needing improvement under No Child Left Behind in a preliminary report released Thursday by state Superintendent Terry Bergeson.

North Thurston was the only Thurston County district listed as needing improvement overall, but nearly all of the county's eight districts failed to meet federal benchmarks in at least one area, according to the report....

•Avanti High School: Did not meet target graduation rate.

•Jefferson Middle School: Math for the special-education and low-income groups; reading for the special-education group.
Since our results are tied to the WASL, and since WASL scores dipped in many categories statewide, which Bergeson blamed on "something... happening with the kids," one has to wonder if WASL angst is going to be enough to propel her competition, Randy Dorn, this November.

Aug 28, 2008

irony and wine

Ed Brayton points to a funny, sad hoax perpetuated by one Robin Goldstein:
As part of the research for an academic paper I'm currently working on about standards for wine awards, I submitted an application for a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. I named the restaurant "Osteria L'Intrepido" (a play on the name of a restaurant guide series that I founded, Fearless Critic). I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant's menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list.

In order to make the application appear genuine, I also obtained a Milan phone/fax number, as required by the application, and established a small online presence. Aside from creating the menu and wine list, all of this took less than three hours.

Osteria L'Intrepido won the Award of Excellence, as published in print in the August 2008 issue of Wine Spectator. (Not surprisingly, the Osteria's listing has since been removed from Wine Spectator's website.)
Sadder and funnier than the hoax is the Spectator's reaction, compliments of editor Thomas Matthews [via commentator Calton Bolick], who defends the way the magazine vets its awards:
We do not claim to visit every restaurant in our Awards program. We do promise to evaluate their wine lists fairly. (Nearly one-third of new entries each year do not win awards.) We assume that if we receive a wine list, the restaurant that created it does in fact exist. In the application, the restaurant owner warrants that all statements and information provided are truthful and accurate. Of course, we make significant efforts to verify the facts.

In the case of Osteria L’Intrepido:
a. We called the restaurant multiple times; each time, we reached an answering machine and a message from a person purporting to be from the restaurant claiming that it was closed at the moment.
b. Googling the restaurant turned up an actual address and located it on a map of Milan
c. The restaurant sent us a link to a Web site that listed its menu
d. On the Web site Chowhound, diners (now apparently fictitious) discussed their experiences at the non-existent restaurant in entries dated January 2008, to August 2008.
If more than half your new entries receive awards, it may be time to rethink your award process. That being said, the irony hasn't yet been served. After Matthews' description of a research process that, shoddy as it was, still should have raised red flags (Stephen Glass, circa 1998, anyone? Come on, that was a decade ago), senior editor James Molesworth writes,
Larry: This is the problem with the 'blogosphere'. It's a lazy person's journalism. No one does any real research, but rather they just slap some hyperlinks up and throw a little conjecture at the wall, and presto! you get some hits and traffic...
The lack of self-awareness is positively stupefying.

Capital Cougars ready to rumble

I neglected to comment on The Olympian's preview of the Capital Cougars' upcoming football season. Another year, another new league:
For just the football season, the WCC has joined forces with the Class 3A schools in the Olympic League — which include Bremerton, North Kitsap, Olympic and Port Angeles — to create the eight-team Olympic/Western Cascade Conference, or better known as the OWL. The top four teams will make the Week 10 district crossover playoff game. Three of the four new teams Capital will play in the new league combined for only eight victories last season.
The rest of the article focuses on Capital's double threat, Reid and Riley Wall, who look to improve on last year's 5-5 rebuilding season, taking advantage of some (hopefully) weaker opponents and racking up some big yards on the ground. They'll be surrounded by an experienced team--lots of seniors on both sides of the ball.

No mention of the starting QB, or, for that matter, of other key aspects of this year's squad. I may have to do some digging, talk to Coach Johnson again, see if there's anything new afoot. At our first Learning Improvement Days, all the football coaches were in high spirits. I'm hoping it's a good sign.

Here's a quick link to the season schedule. Fearsome O'Dea shows up first, ranked fifth in MaxPreps' preseason poll. You may remember them as the team that knocked us out of the playoffs last year.

Friday the 5th, revenge is a dish best served at home.

Aug 27, 2008

Bio-Dome evangelism

Bio-Dome. For most of us, it's a scarring experience, an inextricable, unforgettable trauma.

For Stephen Baldwin, it was part of God's plan.
I didn't know it ten years ago when I agreed to become Doyle Johnson, but God had already called me both to know Him personally and to impact the youth culture in America with the Good News of Jesus Christ. I didn't know it because I didn't know Jesus at the time. One of the reasons kids will listen to me today is because they recognize me from the movies. But not just any movie. One movie: Bio-Dome.

God had me make this film to give me the platform that would later become my life's work. At the time I just wanted to goof off with Pauly Shore for a couple of months. God knew that, and He also knew the plans He had for my life, plans He made sure came to pass.
I suppose the ultimate conundrum of theodicy, the Problem of Evil Movies, has been cracked right in half.

training for a "growth mindset"

Friend and blog-neighbor TRP wonders why he gets great evaluations from students who amiably fail his class.
So here's what I don't get.

Both research and common sense show that students do better work when they like their teachers. I think all of our personal experience supports this, whether we were A, B, C, or marginal students.

But even a cursory look at my evaluations reveals that I have a significant subset of students who really like me--often effusively so--but who don't do a damn bit of work.
I know what that's like. I wonder, too, how I can model, teach, infuse, or otherwise inspire the friendly failures to succeed.

Is it hopeless? I hope not. Research seems to support my optimism. Peddlers of "positive thinking" and its ilk are on to something: attitude equals potential. Carol Dweck is perhaps the world's leading psychologist of motivation. In an interview with NewScientist, she shares some of her most recent findings [sub. req.]. Here's the passage that struck me:
What is your advice to parents who want to avoid trapping their children in a fixed mindset?
First, teach your child the growth mindset, and then praise effort, strategy and improvement. Do not praise intelligence and talent. This harms them.

How easy is it to influence people's mindsets?
We have shown that you can put college students in a fixed or growth mindset by having them read compelling scientific articles that support one view or the other. After the students read the articles, we gave them a difficult reading comprehension test on which they did poorly, and asked them afterwards: "Would you like to look at the tests of people who've done worse than you, or better?" The students who had read the articles supporting a fixed mindset chose to look at the work of people who had done worse. It made them feel better about themselves. But the students who had read the literature favouring the growth mindset overwhelmingly chose to look at the tests of people who had done better, so that they could learn new strategies. They also felt better about themselves.

Could more be done to foster growth mindsets in school?
In our study of the transition to junior high, a control group was given extensive training using study aids. The experimental group got those study aids but they also got several workshops in the growth mindset. They were told that every time they stretch themselves, the neurons in their brain form new connections, and over time they get smarter. They were also taught how to put that into practice in their schoolwork. Their grades rebounded, while those of the control group continued to decline.
A "growth mindset" is a basic belief that learning and experience can mold one's intelligence and achievement. It is highly predictive of academic success in a secondary environment.

I'm going to try this approach at the start of the school year, first finding, exploring, and presenting the data on a "growth mindset," then reinforcing it throughout. I'll report back and discuss whether it's working.

For more, read this older interview with Education World.

Update: In this video (which, for me, had mismatched audio, but was worth a listen) Carol Dweck explains her methods in more detail.

aim your prayers higher next time

A little while ago, there was a mild flurry over the Focus on the Family goof who half-jokingly suggested that folks pray for rain during the Democratic National Convention. You know, to dampen enthusiasm for a certain prominent candidate.

Turns out it worked. Sort of.

[via Crooks and Liars via PZ]

Aug 26, 2008

no WASL boost for Bergeson

If you're a teacher, you probably already knew what others saw only today: that, statewide, WASL scores were either down or up only slightly, the most notable exception in the 10th grade writing exam.
The results in some other grades improved, especially in grade 5, where the passage rate in reading rose to 75.3 percent, up 3.4 percentage points from last year. And more of this fall's incoming seniors have already passed both reading and writing on the WASL than their counterparts had a year ago.
How many more? About 0.5 percent in 10th reading, and 2.3% in writing. Math declined roughly a percentage point. Science, which yet counts for naught, saw slightly higher scores--39.7% passing versus 36.4% in 2007. And in the lower grades:
But the results in grades 4 and 7, which declined more than the other scores went up, are causing consternation for Bergeson and others. About 72 percent of fourth-graders passed the reading section of the WASL, down 4.3 percentage points from the previous year. In math, 53.4 percent of students passed, down 4.7 percentage points. In seventh grade, reading scores declined nearly 6 percentage points, to 62.8 percent passing, and about half of the students passed math, down 4.3 percentage points from last year.
Bergeson has already exculpated the test, saying that "Something is happening with the kids."

WASL fatigue? Mad Cow disease? iPoditis?

At any rate, look for Randy Dorn to harp on the essentially flat test scores over the past few goes-round as evidence of stagnation, and look for Bergeson to fire back that OSPI is already working on fixes, including truncated tests for tykes.

a brief introduction to Rawls

Anyone interested in the work of John Rawls--and I direct this mostly to high school debaters who have yet to memorize the Difference Principle--would be well-served by David Gordon's concise and thoughtful introduction to his work, including a biographical tidbit that may explain his reliance on moral luck as the foundation of his contractual thinking.
Rawls argues that people do not deserve to reap the rewards of [their] talents. Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because he is superlatively good at golf. Yet his abilities do not stem from any special virtue on his part. He was just lucky that, by some combination of heredity and environment, he ended up with superior skills. He is lucky in another respect: market demand for golf enables his talent to achieve vast returns. Because market demand for checkers players is much less, the late Marion Tinsley, whose skill at checkers was comparable to that of Woods in golf, did not earn comparable returns on his talent.

One might object that luck is not the full story. However talented he may be, Woods had to practice countless hours from his early youth to get where he is today. Does he not deserve to benefit from his hard work? Rawls has an answer that I suspect readers will find surprising. He thinks that if you have the personality trait of working hard, this too is a matter of luck. Even though Woods practiced strenuously, he does not deserve to benefit from this trait.

As Thomas Pogge has noted in his recent biography John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, Rawls was especially sensitive to issues of luck because of a sad occurrence in his own life. Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the “most important events in Jack’s childhood.” In 1928, the 7-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died.
Gordon also explains the appropriation of Rawls' techniques and premises by libertarians he calls "Rawlsekians," fusing the work of Rawls and Hayek.

An interesting critique of Rawls may come from moral psychology, which has found that people have strange and sometimes contrary intuitions about moral dilemmas, reaching answers that aren't always amenable to classical conceptions of reason. Rawls's scheme depends on a set of unbiased thinkers behind a veil of ignorance, but perhaps innate biases and irrational quirks rule out any truly ideal foundation for a social contract.

Aug 25, 2008

always back up your data

At about 11:45 this morning, my school MacBook shut down unexpectedly. Warily, I tried to boot it up. Nothing but an ominous clicking noise.

Apparently MacBooks had a hard drive problem that Apple knew about. Our tech staff warned us that they'd had to replace a few dozen hard drives, but that was months ago, when they were first issued. I thought I was out of the woods.

Good thing I had done my major backups early this summer.

color me evil

I've seen some ugly cars in my time--click the label below if you don't believe me--but this has to be the most incredible paint scheme ever concocted.

And check out that license plate number. Too perfect.

the lamest pass in the world

This is a real highway sign just outside of Hoquiam, Washington. Lonngren Pass is a real pass that rises to the astounding height of 47 feet.

I suspect a joke at taxpayers' expense.

Aug 24, 2008

a Nigerian luau

Notes from a Weekend of Chaos, With Assorted Photos

Travels and Travails
I have been to Quilcene, and back, and back again. I am no longer fond of Quilcene. However, my car survived its mountain trek, a $275 tow (insurance paid, after much wrangling), $84 worth of brake repairs, and that was it. I still own the champagne chariot, but I'm not sure for how long.

Much praise for Craig of Northwest Towing and Satch of Satchworks, both in Port Hadlock.

Balderdash and Beyond
Mom and Cathy may not always score the most points when playing Beyond Balderdash, the best party game ever invented, but they always win when it comes to the crazy.

Movie Title: Let's Go Places.
Cathy's synopsis: "A Hell's Angel follows a leprechaun to a pot of gold."

Movie Title: The Trouble With Dick.
Cathy's synopsis: "A peanut farmer is forced to sell his farm when he goes bananas."
Mom's synopsis: "Mine worker by day, sleuth by night, Dick Harris finds himself at odds with his family and community."

Movie Title: Every Home Should Have One
Cathy's synopsis: "A refrigerator falls in love with the dishwasher and teaches the homeowners about true love."

Word: Mohoohoo.
Mom's definition: "A Nigerian luau."

Better than a thousand hours of psychotherapy.

They Bring the Funk... Inc.
Lacey is host to the best-named corporation in the world: an AllState Insurance outlet called Zuckerman Funk Agency. What a great name for a band.

Seen on a Flower Shop Sign Near Monroe, Washington
"Celebrate Hawaiian Days Here. Come Get Laid."

Serenity Now
Lake Serene, along Highway 2, is a stiff hike up a rather unforgiving trail. Steep stairs--500 by Cathy's count--lead to slippery rocks. Slow going, especially down, and treacherous for the unlucky. Count my sister Caroline among that number. She lost her footing, slamming her tailbone on a sharp rock while spraining an ankle. She tried, heroically, to hike back down the mountain, but eventually had to be carried by Snohomish County's search and rescue squad, a volunteer force that seemed to relish an adventure in the woods. Friendly, fast-moving folks who made her trip down the mountain a lot less painful.

Hope you're feeling better, sis.

Bonus Cathyism
My new specs sport an eagle logo that looks vaguely like a W. Upon first seeing them, Cathy, without a shred of irony, asked, "Are those Wienerschnitzel glasses?"

let's start a meme: "Jabberin' Joe" Biden

"Talky Joe" just doesn't sing.

"Jabberin' Joe" does.

Alliteration: check. Polysyllable followed by emphatic monosyllable: check. Veiled historical allusion: check. Apostrophe: check. Possible plagiarism alert: check.

"Jabberin' Joe" Biden.

And with that, I am finished commenting on the 2008 presidential election.

Aug 22, 2008

Jabberin' Joe Biden is Obama's running mate

So saith the AP.

Three words:


Barack Obama has chosen a running mate

It's not me.

grammar mockery taken to new depths

Laughing at others' syntactic and orthographic ineptness is one thing. Making it your mission to correct others' mistakes: not so wise.
Deck's diary account of the Grand Canyon incident was submitted as evidence in court. It says the two men climbed Desert View Watchtower while on holiday from their typo-enforcement duties "and discovered a hand-rendered sign inside that, I regret to report, had a few errors. I know today was supposed to be my day off from typo-hunting, but if I may be permitted to quote that most revered of android law enforcers, Inspector Gadget, 'Always on duty!' I can't shut it off. . . . Will we never be free from the shackles of apostrophic misunderstanding, even in a place surrounded by natural beauty?"

After correcting a misplaced apostrophe and comma, Deck reported, he was aghast to discover what he described as a made-up word: "emense."

"I was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further, so we had to let the other typo stand. Still, I think I shall be haunted by that perversity."
In their quest to rid the world of typos, Jeff Deck and Ben Herson "used a white-out product and a permanent marker to deface a sign painted more than 60 years ago by artist Mary Colter." A historic landmark. It'll cost 'em over $3,000 to compensate the park service for the fix, and they're banned from entering national parks for a year.

I shudder to think how those morons would react if they stumbled across the only surviving copy of A Table Alphabeticall.

[via Obscure Store]

Aug 21, 2008

how the top-two primary might empower small parties

Fact: Ruth Bennett's percentage was 477 times the margin in the original gubernatorial vote count in Washington's 2004 election.

Observation: Those who voted for Ruth Bennett, in effect, cast their votes away, having no real say in the outcome.

Fact: Were the 2004 election run again according to present rules, Ruth Bennett would have already been eliminated.

Observation: Many of those voters might have considered Gregoire or Rossi, were they forced into the choice.

Observation: A margin-sized bloc of voters, thus cast about in an open sea, might have made the major candidates work harder to secure their votes in the general by bringing their issues to light.

Conclusion: Thus, it's possible that the top-two primary, by eliminating a weak third party from the running, could make those party's voters more sought-after, and hence more powerful, in any year with a predicted narrow margin.

Addendum: But probably not.

Update: David Goldstein has the same brainwave, except funnier.

photos of Marmot Pass

I'll be honest: I'm not going to share the best photos I took, simply because I want you to experience the beauty of Marmot Pass for yourself. If you find these tempting, give in to your inner mountaineer, and tackle one of the best day hikes of all time.

The 5-and-a-quarter mile trail to the pass is a lovely walk, lollygagging through cool forests until finally breaking out into sunshine, and the beginnings of scenery.

Poop-out Drag, named by Boy Scouts. It's not as fearsome as I remembered. Or maybe I'm stronger.

If you want the best views, once you reach the pass, go to your left, up this ridge.

Speaking of.

One of the many reasons to take the extra (careful) effort to go all the way up. Seriously. Don't stop at the pass.

Spot the marmot.

The cool-down canter through the forest for the last two miles, which gives your knees and your head a rest as you follow the winding stream downhill, also lends itself to wondrous fungi and slime molds.

Are you a stove? No?

Then back down the trail for you.

the predictive value of the 2008 Washington State primary

Somewhat silly predictions aside, it's time to look at the results of the primary. A few observations.

1. Voter turnout was way below average in King County--around 20%, compared to 27%+ statewide--which may have artificially inflated Rossi's overall performance. Rossi's camp is probably praying this trend continues into the general election, since King County went 60% for Gregoire this time around.

2. As David Goldstein notes, there's no comparing this primary with the previous primary in 2004, in which voters had to choose a party, not any old candidate. The best comparison is between this primary and the general election of 2004. Provisionally, I agree with him that this is a "straw poll" for Gregoire, and that her win is a genuine win. In other words, since voters were free to choose any candidate, just as they can in the general election, the predictive power of the "top two" primary is considerably stronger than some, like David Postman of the Seattle Times, have claimed, even if Gregoire still isn't a sure thing.

3. Considering #1 above, and the natural incumbent advantage, and the fact that Gregoire's people are probably concerned that their candidate didn't top 50%, I'd predict that this primary motivates and mobilizes Democrats. Watch for a flurry of spending and campaigning, even more than last time, to secure Gregoire's lead.

4. Terry Bergeson has to feel great that she outpolled Randy Dorn. She has to be nervous, though, that "anybody but Bergeson" was the clear winner. If even David Blomstrom could siphon 4% of the vote, the electorate is clearly displeased by the current administration. Whether Dorn can rally all the opposition, though, remains to be seen. Blomstrom's probably going to call me a media whore no matter what, but I wasn't horribly impressed by Dorn's approach and his sketchy past--and partly due to Blomstrom's own efforts to raise tough questions about Dorn's past. Dorn seemed like the least worst option. I miss Rich Semler.

Aug 20, 2008

what does "morally permissible" mean?

There are several ways to define "morally permissible." One is to break the words apart, to define "morally" and then "permissible." However, there is a more holistic way.

In Ethics in the First Person, Deni Elliott defines permissibility thusly:
A moral system differentiates among behaviors that are morally prohibited, those that are morally permitted, those that are morally required, and those that are morally encouraged.... Permitted [means] behavior that is within the bounds of the moral system. It is morally permitted to act in any way that does not cause others unjustified harms.
In short, "permitted" is the lowest bar for moral behavior. Anything that is not morally forbidden is permitted.

Another way to look at it: we tolerate permissible behavior, even if we disagree with it or find it distasteful. Jovan Babic, in "Justifying Forgiveness," found in Peace Review, March 2000, explains:
Tolerance is the demarcation line between that which is permissible and that which is impermissible. In practice, what is morally permissible is what is in a way morally indifferent, and it is the subject of legitimate freedom, while what is morally impermissible can absolutely not be tolerated and its tolerance (by others) would mean abandoning the basic principle of moral evaluation (in oneself).
"Legitimate freedom," to Babic, means a choice between actions without any sort of moral stricture--either proscription, encouragement, or obligation.

Context can be crucial in determining whether a moral choice is permissible. Consider Carla, who wishes to play a board game.

1. Choosing to play Monopoly instead of Risk is (probably) morally insignificant; either choice is morally permissible.
2. Choosing to play Monopoly instead of finishing her chores and homework could be morally prohibited.
3. Choosing to play Monopoly in a marathon to raise money for cancer research could be morally encouraged.
4. Choosing to play Monopoly according to the rules could be morally required.

The crucial thing to note regarding the current resolution is that the affirmative, in showing that trading one life for many is morally permissible, does not have to prove such an action is right, but only that it isn't wrong.

I'm still searching for other good definitions of "morally permissible." If you find one, let me know.

Aug 19, 2008

Board chooses replacements

Eileen Thomson in District 3, and Mark Campeau in District 5. You can read their statements here.

Washington state primary predictions

1. For Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn will outpoll Terry Bergeson.
2. David Blomstrom, despite finishing fifth, will live to run another day.
3. Turnout will be lower than expected.
4. For Governor, Dino Rossi will trail Chris Gregoire, 47-49 (the remaining 4% split among the others).
5. For Congress, Darcy Burner will outpoll Dave Reichert.
6. No one on either of these lists will win.
7. Washington state's servers will crash as the punditocrats hit "refresh" on their election results screens, over and over until their fingers bleed, while the rest of the world watches Olympic beach volleyball.
8. Democracy will survive another primary.

Olympia City Council adopts my "door prize democracy" scheme

The Olympia City Council has embraced the value of randomness. Here's what I recommended here and on Olyblog, a little while back:
A random draw would level every individual's probability of being chosen first, and would also lead to a representative sample of the various opinions represented, especially if at least 60 people were chosen (3 minutes each = 3 hours). The council could post the first 60 names drawn, and those picked would have the option of passing their turn to a friend, if they thought s/he would do a better job or otherwise needed to go earlier. The council could even set a rule saying that they would not be allowed to adjourn until at least 60 people had spoken.

The only element lost would be the "back-and-forth," but since such situations are usually far removed from the rigor of a formal debate, there's no need to go Pro-Con-Pro-Con in lockstep.
Here's what the Council approved:
In the method approved Monday, people who want to speak would sign a form upon entering The Washington Center, which would open at 5 p.m. that day. Of the forms received from 5 to 6 p.m., a city official would randomly draw 40 names.

Those people would be notified by their names being put up on a screen, and they would be asked to relocate to the lower section, where three rows would be reserved for them.

A second drawing would take place for the next 40 speakers at 7 p.m. They would speak after the initial 40.

Those who do not get to speak, but sign up by 7 p.m. that day, would be able to speak at another hearing, at a date to be scheduled.
Freaky / awesome.

I promise not to abuse my powers of persuasion.

monogamy means an early grave

File this under "interesting, highly disputable, and potentially inflammatory." Researchers claim that polygamous men live longer than their monogamous counterparts.
After accounting for socioeconomic differences, men aged over 60 from 140 countries that practice polygamy to varying degrees lived on average 12% longer than men from 49 mostly monogamous nations, says Virpi Lummaa, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield, UK....

Using data from the World Health Organization, Lummaa and Russell scored 189 countries on a monogamy scale of one to four - totally monogamous to mostly polygamous. They also took into account a country's gross domestic product and average income to minimise the effect of better nutrition and healthcare in monogamous Western nations.

Lummaa stressed that their monogamy score is a crude first stab, and they are working to find multiple ways to assess marriage patterns. The conclusions could evaporate under further analysis, she adds.
Read the comments for some interesting alternate takes on the data, as well as some jokes of varying quality.

some problems with killing one to save many

The current resolution states,
Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.
For the affirmative, especially one adopting a utilitarian framework, this raises several problems.

1. The problem of application.
Let's borrow a line of thinking from rule utilitarianism. If the resolution were adopted as a moral principle, what sort of behaviors could we expect as a result? Perhaps the greatest harm is not to dignity, or to life, but to the very fabric of society, as individuals, ensured that such a tradeoff is morally permissible, take actions they might have otherwise avoided. Combine with human fallibility, and we have a recipe for vigilantism, tragic accidents, and all kinds of slippery slopes.

2. The problem of agency.
a. Is the agent of action a person, a government, a society, an ideal moral agent, or some other entity?
b. Is the morality of the action different if the agent is different? For example, does a hospital's ethics board, which sometimes has to make similar decisions, bear a different level of moral culpability than an individual faced with the same choice? What about a democratically elected government?
c. Is the "problem of application" different if the agent is different?

3. The problem of calculation.
This problem can be thrown in a utilitarian's face: how do we calculate the relative value of different lives? The resolution gives no word as to the length or quality of life being weighed in the moral scales. For instance, a utilitarian might say that trading a child's life for two retirees' is unfair. The child still has (potentially) eighty years of happiness left, while the two gerontocrats share a good twenty between them. However, since all we know is the quantity of people--one versus an indeterminate many--all hedonic bets are off. The negative cannot let the affirmative presume that utilitarian math is simple.

4. The problem of context.
Does context reign supreme over the simple question of a moral calculus? Do different contexts, in other words, lead us to different answers? For example, consider capital punishment, which you might not think of the first time you consider the resolution, but has its own connection.

Suppose that out of every thousand persons executed is actually innocent, and presume that this is the inescapable, hard fact of any imperfect human institution. Suppose also that capital punishment has a real deterrent effect--that executing a hundred murders each year saves at least ten lives, in two ways: it prevents one free citizen from going through with a planned killing, and it prohibits one potential reoffender from murdering a second victim after escape, pardon, or release on parole. (These estimates are conservative on purpose; according to some theorists, each execution may deter an average of eighteen murders.)

Thus, our moral calculus: every ten years, on average, one innocent person is killed by the state, as is necessary to prevent the deaths of twenty other innocents.

Must an affirmative thus admit that capital punishment is morally permissible under the resolution? Does it matter that the state did not intend to kill an innocent, but only that it acceded to the killing as a probable consequence of its deterrent strategy?

In what other ways might the resolution be contextualized? Embryonic stem cell research? Abortion? Preventing genocide?

5. The problem of scale.
Affirming the resolution means, potentially, arguing that one innocent should be killed to prevent the death of two innocents; after all, the word "more" has no inherent scale, and is minimally two. However, is this limited reading fair? An affirmative might argue that societies only consider these sorts of calculations when either of two conditions hold: there is a situation that brings us to the moral brink (such as the "ticking time bomb scenario," mentioned in comments to this post), and that there is no conceivable superior option. In a sense, this is a way to skirt around the problem of application raised above, and to avoid sliding down the slope to moral anarchy. However, the negative can hold a hard, literal line: the resolution specifies no conditions (see the problem of context, above), and any attempt to make the reading more "reasonable" or general is a conditional affirmation.

6. The problems I haven't considered.
If you think of another, raise it in the comments, or post a solution to one of the problems above.

a commment and a correction

A reader writes,
Dear Jim,

I found your blog when looking up the senior community Cascara At The Villages. Not to live at, but to laugh at. I have a book, Ethnobotany of Western Washington, and the Quinault word for Cascara translates as "have bowel movement". When I hear the ads on KING-FM end with "There's always something to do at Cascara," I add "and it's usually number two."

August 1, you claimed to be a living human being, not a spammer, stating some body parts as evidence. I defy you to have a tibula, unless you have an ancient village on Sardinia, or maybe it's a fusion of the tibia and the fibula. Please post the appropriate map or x-ray. BTW, it's a lost village, so good luck.

For extra credit, take the Skeleton Quiz, noting the answers to questions 18 and 19.

Steve Kirkpatrick, DDS
As I wrote back to Steve, my seventh-grade science teacher, the one who made us memorize every bone, would be ashamed of my egregious conflation of the tibia and fibula. Sorry, Mr. Seaberg, and thanks for noticing, Dr. Kirkpatrick.

At least it's further evidence that to err is human. Which proves I'm human.

Aug 16, 2008

scared of the mountains

After my wife and I finished the Marmot Pass hike (photos arriving soon!) (here!), we packed up our gear, and headed back toward civilization.


No more than thirty seconds away from the trailhead, the most horrifying sound came from the rear passenger wheel, or thereabouts. I stopped, got out, looked underneath for a rock or a branch or a visible sign of damage. Nothing. I got back in the car, thought maybe I could creep forward, see if the sound returned. The car refused to budge. The wheel was locked, the brake pad (I'm guessing) fused in place, the front tires trying to drag it, kicking and screaming, but it just wouldn't move.

It was six in the evening, and we were way out of cell phone range. Luckily, a nice guy--Alan from Eastlake, a proud Obama supporter and owner of many cats--was heading down just after us. He stopped, and was glad to take us down to Quilcene, where we'd figure out how to get some grub, a tow, and a ride home.

Two outta three ain't bad.

Alan had to stop for gas at a little station in Quilcene. I got out to call my folks, asking if they could come down from Redmond, across the Hood Canal bridge, taking the scenic route. They said they could. When I hung up, a woman driving a Chrysler 300 pulled up at the adjoining pump.

"How do I get back to I-5?" she asked. "I'm lost. I took a wrong turn somewhere, and I've been driving through all these mountains. I'm scared to death of driving in the mountains!" She wasn't joking. I told her that the slowest, but easiest way, was just to keep going south on 101 and hit I-5 north in Olympia. No turns, no bridges, no confusion.

"Thanks," she said. "Also, do you know where the gas cap door release is on this thing? I can't find it."

She stepped out of her car, and I sat in it, looking in vain. Eventually I thought, maybe it doesn't have one. Sure enough, I pulled open the door with my hand. "Thanks again," she said.

I thought for a second. "If you're going back to I-5, through Olympia, that's right where my wife and I are headed," I said. "My car's broken down in the mountains, and I need to get back there. I know it's an imposition, but could we ride down with you?" I could then call my folks, saving them the trip. Plus, she'd have someone to give her company and directions, just in case 101 South proved too baffling.

She hemmed and hawed for a moment, said she'd think about it. "It's not just me, you should meet my wife," I said, calling Melissa over. The woman seemed a little less anxious, but then went over to Alan, asking him if our story was true. Of course it was, he said, telling her how picked us up and brought us into town.

"Okay," she said, and went into the station to pay for her gas. Alan waved goodbye to us and drove away. Inside, though, the woman had a change of heart. "I'm just not comfortable," she told my wife, who was about to buy some snacks for the ride. "If I knew you, I don't think I would worry about it. But I'm a single woman, driving alone." (And we're so intimidating and criminal, my wife thought.)

So, she drove away, leaving us to walk into Quilcene proper, looking for food, deciding that it was probably best that we didn't ride down 101 with a woman afraid of mountains.

Eventually my folks arrived, rescuing us from the heat and the approaching darkness. (Actually, we stayed cool in the Olympic Timberhouse, hearing all about Dino Rossi's recent visit from enamored locals.)

The car's still up in the forest, since, for liability reasons, I had to be present as it's towed, and there was no way to get back up to it before dark. Monday it heads to a junkyard. Too many years of brake problems, many involving mysterious leaks. This summer, I've gotten used to walking and taking the bus around town. This is an omen: it's time to make the Andersons a one-car family.

But I'm not going to stop driving in the mountains. I'm not afraid.

Aug 15, 2008

Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

The September/October Lincoln-Douglas resolution has been released:
Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.
The obvious affirmative / negative split is a classic standoff between utilitarianism and deontology. Some thoughts to get you started thinking:

1. What does "morally permissible" mean?
2. Note that the resolution says "to kill." This seems to require a more active form of agency--the action involves taking action to end a life, not merely allowing a life to end.
3. Don't limit yourself to the basic utilitarian/deontological split, though. There are many ways of looking at moral questions--act vs. rule utility, attempted hybrid theories, utility with side constraints, moral intuitionism, virtue ethics. A good introduction to different moral stances is here. (For novices, some basic resources are here.)
4. Look into "moral psychology." Specifically, hypotheticals like the "trolley problem." Human intuitions, regarding what to do in these circumstances, are notoriously murky.

More links and analysis in the days to come. Join in the conversation--add a comment or a question!

Update 8/19: I go over some potential problems for the affirmative.

Update 8/21: I define "morally permissible."

Update 9/4: Many of the comments are useful--scroll about halfway down, until things start turning into, my summary, "would you email me a copy of your case?" and "spreading sucks!" Those are valuable, but they're cluttering up the comments. So, I'm creating a new post--call it an open forum--where you can rant about LD as an event, instead of this resolution in particular. If you have a question or would like to see me post on a specific aspect of this resolution, that's also the place to let me know.

Update 9/11: I answer a reader's question about specific agents within the resolution.

Update 9/14: I discuss a few versions of utilitarianism.

Update 9/15: Some thoughts for the stuck.

the robot lives!

A robot with a brain made of real nerves: the apocalypse inches closer.
The robot’s biological brain is made up of cultured neurons which are placed onto a multi electrode array (MEA). The MEA is a dish with approximately 60 electrodes which pick up the electrical signals generated by the cells. This is then used to drive the movement of the robot. Every time the robot nears an object, signals are directed to stimulate the brain by means of the electrodes. In response, the brain's output is used to drive the wheels of the robot, left and right, so that it moves around in an attempt to avoid hitting objects. The robot has no additional control from a human or a computer, its sole means of control is from its own brain.
The robot has no memory yet, though researchers are steadfastly teaching it, hoping that it will be able to pass the SAT within a year.

[via a series of links starting here]

Aug 14, 2008

this is why policy debate sucks

Because the event now includes the Half Moon Kritik.
A YouTube video of a Fort Hays State University assistant professor who mooned an audience at a March tournament has led to a university investigation.

The video shows William “Bill” Shanahan, an assistant professor of communications, director of forensics and coach of the Fort Hays debate team, in a heated, in-your-face argument with University of Pittsburgh debate coach Shanara Reid-Brinkley.

Both professors scream curses at one another and at one point Shanahan bends over and pulls down the back of his baggy khaki shorts, exposing his underwear to a room full of students and faculty.
And in thinking the strategy a natural extension of the event, I'm being only slightly sarcastic.

[via Obscure Store]

photos of Mount Ellinor

Three years ago, the last time I ascended Mount Ellinor, the clouds and goats were out. No such weather--or fauna--today. Dad and I took a trip to the summit, and were treated to utterly spectacular views. Photos follow. I'll add captions if I get the urge, or if requested.

Aug 13, 2008

will moral psychology kill off virtue ethics?

So fears Edouard Machery, in a new paper [pdf]. Responding to a defense of virtue ethics proffered in Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiments in Ethics, Machery argues that virtue ethics is insecure from situationist critiques.

There are two basic tacks a situationist can take to undo virtue ethics:

1. Prove empirically that moral agency is disunified. Machery admits that this hasn't been demonstrated, but is a "live possibility." Experiments show that, in many cases, context overwhelms moral judgment; furthermore, the moral I, the self that decides, seems to be cobbled together from moods, biases, unconscious demands, and desires that are contradictory, uncontrollable, or easily diverted. To rip Juliet's words from context, morally speaking, I am not I, if there be such an I.

2. Deconstruct moral intuitions. Here Machery's critique is more pointed. How do we know which virtues are in fact virtuous? Sometimes we must look to moral intuition as a guide. Yet experiments show that moral intuitions can be foiled by a mere slight rewording of a hypothetical, or, on the other hand, raising or lowering the moral stakes can sometimes create no difference in people's choices. Machery sums up:
We know that some, and maybe many, moral intuitions are spurious (as is shown by the Asian flu case), but, save a few cases, we do not know how to identify the intuitions that ought to be jettisoned.
Let me warn that this blog post is a summary of a paper critiquing a book, and is therefore too far removed from the discussion for anything but thought-provocation. If you are a student of moral philosophy, you should check out Machery's article and read Appiah's book. (Whether it will make you a better person is an open question.)

Aug 12, 2008

KOMO goes interactive

The KOMO News website now accepts comments on its stories. Here's a sample.
Let the babbling commence.

That makes me wonder: what major regional media outlets are still resisting Web 2.0?

today's statistics links

1. Dr. Pezz compares Olympics coverage and a staff meeting, cautioning us to be wary of statistics. The following links will contain statistics of various origin, kind, and significance. Beware indeed!

2. DMZ track's Jose Vidro's decline and fall. (Look closely at the link: good thing it's not Orthography Day.)

3. Slate is now measuring Olympic sap. That's actually the best thing about watching the Games on It hosts live feeds of all the contests, without any announcers or cutaways for canned corn. Brilliant--and addictive.

4. The U.S. trade deficit dropped. In June. Whether this is a good thing is economically dubious.

5. Mike the Mad Biologist, on pundits, pols, and polls: "Someday, we will have a political press corps that is mathematically literate. And then I will have a magic pony."

6. Up to 80% of British biofuels may come from unsustainable sources. (Soylent Gas was a rare exception.)

7. Even if men are buying more clothing, does it matter much?

8. (Added late) And check out Jordan Ellenberg's explanation of the new way to score gymnastics.

Aug 11, 2008

the weed on the bus goes round and round, all around town

A couple folks complained about an Oly Hempfest ad on the side of an Intercity Transit bus. The agency isn't backing down, though; the ad clearly represents political speech, even though it includes--horrors!--a photo of a cannabis leaf. What's out of bounds:
Intercity Transit forbids advertising on its buses that is obscene, defamatory, racist, sexist or "that is directed at producing imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action." The agency does not endorse any issue or product advertised on its buses, the exception being self-promotion, according to its policies. All political and issue advertisements identify who sponsored them.
If looking at a pot leaf promotes "imminent lawless action," then what will we make of all those anti-drug ads sporting drug paraphernalia? Consider the top half of a recent print ad, which, at first (and potentially only) glance, has a message bound to boomerang:

Today's weed: twice as efficient!

how not to make an advertisement

Seth Stevenson lets his readers vent: which current ads do they hate? There are too many to choose from.

Special mention goes to Billy Mays, hawking health insurance for iCan with the same glib tones and forced gestures he employs when demonstrating cleaners. Writes Stevenson,
This ad is kind of amazing. Watch Billy Mays' hand gestures—they never stop! Hands go out, palms facing each other. Hands come back in, fists balled. Hands go back out, index fingers extended. It's either OCD or some sort of primitive sign language. I think it's happening because he has no tangible product to demonstrate. They should have let him use a sheaf of insurance documentation to wipe up spills with. Or maybe a wallet card for dabbing on grout?
If you're a speech and debate coach, don't-be-like-Billy gives you at least a full week's lesson plan.

Aug 10, 2008

a parasite that prefers a crowd

By stunting the growth of potential queens, a fly can dictate the future of a tropical sweat bee colony. [sub. req.]
Megalopta genalis lives in colonies, where young female bees develop inside cells stuffed with nutritious nectar and pollen. A small parasitic fly called Fiebrigella can also lay its eggs inside these cells. When they hatch, the larvae steal the food stores, which stunts the developing bee's growth.

That has a profound effect on the bee's future. Large, well-fed bees stand a good chance of leaving the nest and starting a new colony as reproducing queens. Their stunted relatives, in contrast, have little chance of succeeding as colony founders. The best way to pass their genes on to the next generation is to become sterile workers labouring for the queen that bore them, which helps her to reproduce and pass down genes to the workers' sisters on their behalf. So the actions of the fly indirectly dictate who takes the crown.

"In Megalopta, the parasites promote sociality," says [UW's Sean] O'Donnell. His study is the first to show that a parasite can actually encourage group living in its host, he says.
Usually, parasites prefer introverts.

Aug 9, 2008

Washburn vs. Span

Jarrod Washburn, in a recent series against the Twins, made my favorite play of the season so far, throwing out Denard Span on a bunt attempt. Washburn won that battle, but Span won the war. (Keep watching the highlights that follow to see how.)

Aug 8, 2008

Bergeson fails the WASL

Actually, not really. Well, sort of.
Out of three questions given to Bergeson, the answer sheet posted on The Stranger showed that she didn’t answer any of the three questions correctly....

Bergeson's campaign manager told KIRO 7 that The Stranger surprised Bergeson with the questions, which she had trouble seeing, because she didn't have her glasses with her.
That is... a lame excuse.

six applicants remain

The Olympia School Board has whittled down the list of replacements for Bob Shirley and Russ Lehman. Three each, The Olympian reports:
Those who remain under consideration for Director District 3 are Jim Justin, Doug Pennington and Eileen Thomson.

Those who remain under consideration for Director District 5 are Mark Campeau, Jerry Vick and Ron Wieland.
The paper notes that the public will have a chance to question the remaining candidates. Only problem: no date or time. The district website provides the missing clues.
Members of the public are invited to attend a forum of the candidates for School Board on Tuesday, August 12th at the Knox Administrative Center, 1113 Legion Way SE, Olympia. Candidates for Director District #3 and Director District #5 will answer questions from members of the audience. The session for Director District #3 is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., with the session for Director District #5 scheduled from 7:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m.
3 is Shirley's vacated post; 5 belonged to Lehman. Got three free hours?

that inimitable poetry-reading voice

Terry Teachout:
Today's literary critics have fallen into the unfortunate habit of using the word "voice" when they mean "style." It's easy to see why that metaphorical usage has become popular -- a writer with a strongly individual style often seems to be speaking directly to the reader -- but appearances can be deceiving, at times cruelly so. Take Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled private eye with a heart of mush. On paper Marlowe was forever tossing off snappy side-of-the-mouth wisecracks ("He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food"). Humphrey Bogart played him in "The Big Sleep," and you know what he sounded like. But what about the real-life author who put the words in Bogie's mouth? Brace yourself: Chandler's mild-mannered speaking voice bore an uncanny resemblance to the milksop whine of Elmer Fudd.

How do I know? Because Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, interviewed Chandler in 1958 for a BBC radio broadcast, a tape of which survives. More than a few of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century spoke over the BBC at one time or another, and to hear them is usually to be astonished, sometimes because they sound so wrong and sometimes because they sound so right. Max Beerbohm, the great Edwardian essayist and caricaturist, made several BBC broadcasts during World War II, and his precise, wistfully gentle voice turns out to have been ideally suited to his witty prose.
I'm not a huge fan of books on tape, or of poetry readings, but there are a few exceptions. My favorite out-loud poet is e.e. cummings, with his lilting cadences and musicality. Even better: in some recordings he sounds exactly like Winnie the Pooh.

Aug 7, 2008

John McCain is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

Astroturf has been a verb for a while. It's nice to see that the McCain campaign has figured out a new wrinkle on the tactic: pay people to spam others' blogs with pro-McCain jibberjabber. Darryl of Horse's Ass:
Therefore, by joining in the fun, you not only spread your own philosophy of McCain and his talking points, but you earn cool stuff and help the economy by enticing the McCain staff to hire additional webmasters to wade through thousands and thousands of comment reports.

The easiest way to comment is to simply copy the talking points verbatim. But my own recommendation is this:
John McCain is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.
What could be more positive then that? Hundreds of thousands of times in blog comment threads across the land. Day after day.
Jesse Walker:
Interestingly, the list of suggested blogs includes several -- InstaPundit, the Club for Growth -- that do not, in fact, let readers post comments.

Aug 6, 2008

the streak is alive

Every year I've taught, I've been handed a new class, sometimes a couple. This coming school year only continues the trend. Here are all the classes I've taught over the past six years; the last is the new course I'll teach this September.
9th English
9th Pre-IB* English
10th English
10th Pre-IB English
11th IB English
12th IB English
Psychology and Sociology (summer term)
Senior Reading
Senior Writing
Creative Writing
Reading Essentials
This latest one should be one of my most exciting: I get to put into practice all the research I've been poring over throughout the summer. Another July/August, another intellectual project.

*International Baccalaureate

Aug 5, 2008

The Olympian liveblogs a School Board meeting

The tough one, from a liveblogging perspective, what with all the candidates for the two open positions.

Frankly, it's about time that the old media figured out one of the most basic of New Media maneuvers.

Now I may retire in peace.

2008 primary brings out the crazies: Part II

The smaller races bring out smaller crackpots, for the most part; and why not? The bigger the audience, the bigger the buffoonery. Still, there are quite a few loose screws in the toolbox below.

John Moyna, Senator, Dist. 3
Charm Rating: Unknown
Most Appealing Feature: Anonymity
Tone: Laconic
Biggest Flaws: Anonymity; Mystique over substance
The Campaign in a Sentence: "All mankind can be categorized into one of two groups: Those who demand the ability to control others, and those not wanting to be controlled."

Chris Bowen, Representative, Pos. 1, Dist. 3
Charm Rating: 3
Most Appealing Feature: Enthusiasm
Tone: Naive
Biggest Flaws: Dubious experience; attended Eastern Washington University
The Campaign in a Sentence: "I was born in 1978 to a nuclear engineer and one of the sweetest ladies you could ever meet."

David M. Morris, Representative, Pos. 1, Dist. 11
Charm Rating: 7
Most Appealing Feature: Lack of experience
Tone: Strident
Biggest Flaws: Lack of experience; redundant punctuation
The Campaign in a Sentence: "SECURE THE BORDER NOW!."

William Glenn (Walkley) Jesernig, Representative, Pos. 2, Dist. 16
Charm Rating: 8
Most Appealing Feature: Brutal honesty
Tone: Devoted
Biggest Flaws: Lack of experience; brutal honesty.
The Campaign in a Sentence:"I am a God fearing father of 9 and grandfather of 7 soon to be 8, Distance runner, Concert promoter, Excavating general contractor, Pyrotechnic operator, Poker Pro, Author, Hole puncher, who never tries; I keep doing till it is done."

Ron Morehouse, Representative, Pos. 2, Dist. 25
Charm Rating: 5
Most Appealing Feature: Parentheses
Tone: Different
Biggest Flaws: Shouting; inconsistent punctuation

Leslie Klein, Representative, Pos. 2, Dist. 36
Charm Rating: 6
Most Appealing Feature: Lists "spy" under experience
Tone: Kidding?
Biggest Flaws: Thinking that gaining 16% of the vote counts as a success; hawking a self-help book

Timothy (Cleaver) Stoddard, Senator, Dist. 40
Charm Rating: 8
Most Appealing Feature: Shades
Tone: Goofy
Biggest Flaws: Suspect grammar; inoffensiveness
The Campaign in a Sentence: "All Modern day Ideas for solving current problems can be solved using Karmic principles."

Keith Ljunghammar, Representative, Pos. 1, Dist. 46
Charm Rating: 4
Most Appealing Feature: Family status
Tone: Shouty
Biggest Flaws: Exclamation point abuse; cut-and-paste candidate statement
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Educate, not Excavate!"

Honorable Mention: Michael C. Powell, Representative, Pos. 2, Dist. 2, who, for his family status, put "Single—looking for a date (after November)." What is it with taxpayer-funded personal ads?

Aug 4, 2008

door prize democracy and the Olympia isthmus

Thad Curtz has noted something interesting about the way the City of Olympia organizes its public comment:
At the Planning Commission hearing this June 142 people signed in to speak against the rezone and 62 people signed in to speak in favor of it. In spite of this, the Commission had people take turns back and forth, pro and con. People in favor of the rezone got to speak half the time - in addition to the extra 15 minutes at the beginning Triway got all to itself to present its proposal (another five turns). The public comment period lasted three hours; 63 people actually got to speak - 31 opposed and 32 in favor.

If you'd taken the time and energy to get ready to try to say something persuasive in three minutes and you were in favor of the rezone, you had almost a 52% chance of getting to speak (32 slots for 62 people). If you were opposed to the rezone, you had just under a 22% chance of getting to speak (31 slots for 142 people)....

In spite of that, it was easy to walk away from the hearing feeling that half the people there were for the rezone and half opposed it, since that was what you'd just spent three hours listening to. The fact that three-quarters of the people there opposed it was invisible, unless you looked up the documents from the hearing afterwards and counted...

One of the functions of a community conversation like this is supposed to be to give the assembled citizens a sense of the whole community's thinking and feeling about the issue. It's not only unfair for people supporting the rezone to have a much better chance of talking, it produces a strongly misleading impression in the audience about the community's views on the issue.
Over there, I've posted a version of what I argue below.

The simplest way to ensure a speaking order that gives everyone a fair shot is a random draw. If each attendee puts her name in a box, and the order of speakers is chosen once a predetermined deadline is reached, each has the same individual probability of first pick as everyone else; simultaneously, the overall ordering, given a large enough sample, will reflect the composition of the group. Randomized assortment also prohibits any sort of selection bias.

This precludes the back-and-forth usually seen in a parliamentary style debate. However, since your average citizen isn't trained in the art of rebuttal, the pro-con lockstep may not be the ideal discussion style anyway.

consider me another "Mojave" hater

If you haven't seen the ads popping up all over the web, like fungus after rain, this'll be news to you: Microsoft has pulled a Folgers.
Last week, Microsoft posted videos at of a test involving about 140 randomly chosen computer users who had low opinions of Vista.

These users had no experience with Vista, so they were shown what was said to be the company's new operating system, called "Mojave." Nearly all liked what they saw.

At the end, they were told Mojave was really Vista.

The videos show the shocked reaction. "Wow, really?" many of them said, looking as surprised as the patrons of America's finest restaurants did in the 1980s TV commercials when the brewed coffee had been replaced by "dark, sparkling, decaffeinated Folgers Crystals."
Critics were unmoved, of course:
The main complaint: Is 10 minutes of watching an expert demonstrate Vista a valid basis on which to assess it?

Although many of Vista's problems have involved setting it up and installing drivers and applications, the software was preloaded in the experiment, so that aspect of Vista was not tested at all.

The site showed "no videos of connecting new devices, attempting to get on a Wi-Fi network or tunneling into work's VPN," or virtual private network, noted Adam DuVander of Webmonkey,
Microsoft should be applauded for at least admitting that the bad press for Vista has pinched where it hurts, and for trying a clever stunt. The critics, though, are right. I've spent hours upon hours trying to get my mom's HP multifunction inkjet to work with Vista (on an HP PC, no less), baffling tech support reps along the way. I eventually had to download all the software from the HP website, figuring the CD installer was bad; a few weeks later, mysteriously, the scanner quit sending data over the network again.

I've worked through the faults and foibles of XP, and they're nothing in comparison. Getting ignorant users to try an artificial experience is ultimately no test of Vista's merits. By any other name, Vista still sucketh.

a quixotic candidate dream team

Fans of quixotic candidates: the 2008 primary edition, Part I is now available. A sample:
Goodspaceguy Nelson, Congress, District 7
Charm Rating: 8
Most Appealing Feature: A love of space colonization that would make him change his first name to "Goodspaceguy."
Tone: Astral
Biggest Flaws: "Birth control" spectacles; being born outside our solar system
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Goodspaceguy wants more people studying at our colleges during the underutilized evenings and weekends."
Read about 'em before they're knocked out by our "Top Two" system.

Update: Part II, bursting with cranky freshness.

Aug 3, 2008

2008 primary brings out the crazies: Part I

I present this year's best primary candidates, who, sadly, have the same chances of winning that the Mariners do of reaching the World Series. This is Part I, the statewide offices. (I include the Congressional reps in that number for dubious reasons.)

And yes, I read the entire voter's guide, even the candidates who didn't appear in the Thurston County edition, just to show I care.

Each Candidate will be appraised with four objective criteria and one sample quote. The Charm Rating, the lone number of the bunch, goes from 1-10; 1 = Mildew, 10 = Cary Grant in a tux.

Glen S. Johnson, Congress, District 2
Charm Rating: 7
Biggest Flaws: Claims that merely running for office counts as experience; confusing campaign blurb with book promo
Tone: Jovial
Most Appealing Feature: Alliteration
The Campaign in a Sentence: "People are from what they eat."

Gordon Allen Pross, Congress, District 4
Charm Rating: 7
Most Appealing Feature: Ladies, Gordon is "Biblically Single."
Tone: Anecdotal
Biggest Flaws: Abuse of bullet points; confusing campaign blurb with personal ad
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Liberty pins its wings on equality, so let’s get equal!"

Goodspaceguy Nelson, Congress, District 7
Charm Rating: 8
Most Appealing Feature: A love of space colonization that would make him change his first name to "Goodspaceguy."
Tone: Astral
Biggest Flaws: "Birth control" spectacles; being born outside our solar system
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Goodspaceguy wants more people studying at our colleges during the underutilized evenings and weekends."

Mark A. Goldman, Congress, District 7
Charm Rating: 10 (pictured in a tuxedo, for goodness' sake)
Most Appealing Feature: No party preference
Tone: Poetic
Biggest Flaws: Abuse of ellipses; flowery rhetoric
The Campaign in a Sentence: "I offer you a strategy based on truth, honor, dignity, compassion, courage, and love."

Al Schaefer, Congress, District 7
Charm Rating: 6
Most Appealing Feature: Sideburns
Tone: Constitutional
Biggest Flaws: Making jury nullification a central issue; the old "income tax is voluntary" gaffe
The Campaign in a Sentence: "With your help our proposals flower."

Will Baker, Governor
Charm Rating: 1
Most Appealing Feature: Unelectable
Tone: Strident
Biggest Flaws: Taking things personally; thinking himself the center of Washington's political universe
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Visit and then please call “60 Minutes” at (212) 975-2006 and please press zero to speak with a live person."

Duff Badgely, Governor
Charm Rating: 4
Most Appealing Feature: Turtleneck
Tone: Frantic
Biggest Flaws: Vastly overestimating the influence and power of the office; Abuse of bullet points
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Now, the Earth is changing in non-linear ways."

Javier O. Lopez, Governor
Charm Rating: 7
Most Appealing Feature: Invented the "Air Engine"
Tone: Ingenious, or possibly unhinged
Biggest Flaws: Confusing the auditor's office with the patent office; violating the laws of thermodynamics
The Campaign in a Sentence: "As an artist and inventor I have come up with an invention that will solve all of the world’s problems."

Mohammad Hasan Said, Governor
Charm Rating: 1
Most Appealing Feature: Quoting George Washington
Tone: Bigoted
Biggest Flaws: Anti-Jewish rhetoric; missing the opportunity to use the word "cabal"
The Campaign in a Sentence: "Finally I would like to sound the alarm, that AIPAC and other Jewish Zionist Lobbies who represent less than 2% of American People are using the United States through their mighty power in the News Media, Financial Institutions, Hollywood and Entertainment Industry, Both Political Parties, Congress and the White House as Proxy to wage war against any country perceived to be threat to Israel, like in Iraq."

David Blomstrom, Superintendent of Public Instruction
Charm Rating: 0
Most Appealing Feature: Sticktuitiveness
Tone: Irritable Bowel
Biggest Flaws: Bizarre mix of zingers and scolds; holding up Hugo Chavez as worthy of imitation
The Campaign in a Sentence: "I’m even attacking Bill Gates, right in his home town."

Update: Part II here.

Aug 2, 2008

no trade claws

The Mariners shopped their stars, but reports say that management was too greedy, so the only talent we axed was our premier situational lefty, Arthur Rhodes, and the only prospect a future investment named Gaby Hernandez. Call it a Claw Crane effort.

Here are a few links to trade deadline analyses, certain to be obsolete by the end of the decade.

1. Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times, breaks down the one move the M's made, and the four biggest that they didn't.

2. Dave of USS Mariner hands out grades.
Pelekoudas gets an A for the Rhodes trade - he did quite well. He gets an incomplete for the Washburn and Ibanez situations, as both are still somewhat unresolved. The Mariners need to keep trying to move Washburn, putting him on waivers tomorrow and lowering their demands, now that the Yankees called their bluff. If they can dump him before end of August, not dealing him today won’t matter. If they keep him for the rest of the season and risk getting stuck with him, he gets an F for not taking advantage of dumping Wash when he could.
3. Jayson Stark, ESPN, gives another overall assessment, and it ain't pretty.
How could Ibanez still be there? How could Jarrod Washburn still be there? How could one-third of that roster not have been traded in the past couple of weeks?

"I'm cutting them a little slack," one rival GM said. "They're leader-less right now."

True, they have an interim GM (the well-liked Lee Pelekoudas) and a confusing ownership arrangement and an uncertain chain of command. But they angered teams they spoke to with what were widely viewed as outrageous demands. And the bottom line is that this deadline represented a lost renovation opportunity in the middle of an already-lost season. And how many lost opportunities can clubs like this afford?
Well, since the Mariners are about to pay $100 million to lose 100 games, maybe they can afford a lot more.

tweaking the constants

A while back, I linked to an article that, I figured, seriously undermined the Anthropic Principle's logic. Further monkeying with crucial constants reveals that, indeed, it's flawed to presume that we should test for "cosmic fine tuning" by changing only one variable at a time. [sub. req.]
[U of Michigan, Ann Arbor's Fred] Adams started with a simple definition of a star: a massive body held together by its own gravity that is stable, long-lived and generates energy through nuclear processes. Just three constants are involved in the formation of such stars. One is the gravitational constant. The second is alpha, the fine structure constant that determines the strength of interactions between radiation and matter. The third is a composite of constants that determines the reaction rates of nuclear processes.
Adams then cooked up a batch of virtual universes, computing a wide range of values for the three constants, each universe possessing laws of physics unlike our own. The results:
About a quarter of the resulting universes turned out to be populated by energy-generating stars. "You can change alpha or the gravitational constant by a factor of 100 and stars still form," Adams says, suggesting that stars can exist in universes in which at least some fundamental constants are wildly different than in our universe.
The possibility of life-supporting black holes, about as wild as you can get, cosmologically speaking, arose in Adams' simulations. CalTech's Sean Carroll comments:
"I don't know what it would look like or how it would work, but black holes radiate, just like stars do. Why couldn't you have life arise in the 'atmosphere' of a gently radiating black hole?"
Crazy stuff.

Those still clinging to the Anthropic Principle had better dig those fingernails in pretty tight.

Aug 1, 2008

I am not a spammer

Google temporarily shut down decorabilia, their robots thinking I was a spamblogger. (I wasn't alone.)

But I'm not. I promise. I am a genuine, bona fide, really real human being. I have a heart, and spleen, and endocrine system, and tibula*, and lungs, and, some would argue, a brain.

Thus, my appeal to the Google blog justice system was accepted, and my humanity was not only confirmed, but celebrated.

I am no spammer.

Although I do like spam poetry. But that is not a crime.

* Update: Error flagged, but not corrected. Let it shine like a beacon of humanity.