Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Doesn't bode well.

Folks who keep an eye on the news out of Iowa* will be aware that there's a certain amount of hoopla going on about biblical literalism there. By this I don't mean that someone has proposed to teach the bible in biology class** or that we have someone akin to our old friend Connie Morris of Kansas stalking around. I'm not even talking about anything like the antics of Ruth Malhotra, although she was always fun. No, this time, I'm talking about something that's going on at a community college:

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

“I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said.


“I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. “I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”

Now, this is an interesting situation. Bitterman*** was simply trying to teach a class dealing with the religious views and creation ideas of several cultures over a span of historic time. This presents an instructor with a problem: if any one of those views is treated as "accurate" then the others are implicitly being condemned. Thus, approaching them as stories or fables is simply the fairest way of dealing with it. Some folks may not like being forced to deal with the notion that their own faith isn't obviously superior to that of another person, but being confronted with uncomfortable ideas is what college is supposed to be about. Or, as a smarter guy than I puts it:

Hector Avalos, an atheist religion professor at Iowa State University, said Bitterman’s free speech rights were violated if he was fired simply because he took an academic approach to a Bible story.

“I don’t know the circumstances, but if he’s teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn’t be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve,” Avalos said. “So it’d be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.

“You don’t fire professors for giving you a scientific answer.”

I don't think that it is the job of college professors, whether at four year institutions or two year institutions, to advocate any particular religion to their students. Nor, as it happens, do I think that academics should criticize any particular religion in class. However, it is well within our mission to analyze, to discuss, and to encourage our students to think about, the claims and history of pretty much any faith that exists.

If Bitterman was inappropriately mocking Christianity, then some sort of disciplinary action was necessary,***** but if he was merely trying to get his students to think about and engage with sections of the bible... well... then the students who got him fired are only cheating themselves.

If all you want from a college education is to have your previous ideas validated then, really and truly, what the hell is the point?

* I mean, c'mon people, who doesn't pay attention to the news out of IOWA?

** Well, not in the last week or so anyway.

*** This is, of course, an extraordinarily unfortunate last name under the circumstances.****

**** Unfortunate because doubtless he will be accused of being an atheist as a consequence of his statements and atheists are often thought to be bitter. Personally, I think that to be successful as an atheist it really helps to have a strong optimistic streak, but that's just me.

***** As is frequently the case, I have no idea if Bitterman actually did something inappropriate in class but, at the moment, it sounds like he was behaving professionally.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

It made sense at the time... I guess.

The Scene: Drek and his Sainted Fiancee are at home having dinner. Drek, still recovering from his recent head cold, is obviously congested.

Sainted Fiancee: Are you still snarfling?

Drek: You know what it reminds me of when you say that?

Sainted Fiancee: What?

Drek: Snarf from the Thundercats.

Sainted Fiancee: Really?

Drek: Yeah. When he was upset he used to say, "Snarf, snarf, snarf."

Sainted Fiancee: What? He'd say his own name?

Drek: Yeah. It was like saying "Oh, dear."

Sainted Fiancee: Was he a thundercat?

Drek: No, he was a snarf.

Sainted Fiancee: So he had the same name as-

Drek: As his species, right, you've got it.

Sainted Fiancee: But he wasn't a thundercat?

Drek: No, he was a... well... a cat-analog.

Sainted Fiancee: A what?

Drek: Sci-fi term. He wasn't a cat, but he served the same role in thundercat society as a cat does in ours. So he was a talking, relatively intelligent pet.

Sainted Fiancee: Were the thundercats cats?

Drek: Not really. They were sort of human/cat hybrids. And aliens.

Sainted Fiancee: Were there many of them?

Drek: Not since their planet blew up. The series followed the adventures of a few survivors. You know, come to think of it, they all had really stupid names.

Sainted Fiancee: How stupid?

Drek: Well, there was Lion-O.

Sainted Fiancee: Lion-O?

Drek: Sorta like Cheerio. There was Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, WilyKit and WilyKat. They were siblings.

Sainted Fiancee: Who?

Drek: WilyKit and WilyKat.

Sainted Fiancee: There was a Lion-O and a Panthro?

Drek: In retrospect, I'm just glad there wasn't a Negr-O. I woulda had a hard time with that one.

Sainted Fiancee: So, if their planet was gone what were they doing?

Drek: Oh. Hanging out on this planet. Fighting these guys. They were supposedly the last of their species, which bugged me since there were so few of them I doubted they had sufficient genetic diversity to keep their species going.

Sainted Fiancee: You're kidding.

Drek: No, although I think it especially bothered me that with only two females- Cheetara and WilyKit- pretty much every male was going to have to father multiple children with every female to improve the chances of stability in the future. Which, you know, really spelled incest.

Sainted Fiancee: How old were you?

Drek: Eh. Ten?

Sainted Fiancee: You're weird.

Drek: Yes I am.

Sainted Fiancee: So who were they fighting?

Drek: This guy named... um... Mustafa? No.... Mum-Ra.

Sainted Fiancee: What was he?

Drek: Honestly? No idea. Undead, I guess, as he was a mummy... thing. He also had these guys working for him.

Sainted Fiancee: Were they mummies?

Drek: No, although that would have made more sense. There was an ape-man that they named Monkian.

Sainted Fiancee: That's... creative.

Drek: Gets better. There was also a jackal guy they called JackalMan and a vulture dude named VultureMan. I think they even pronounced it like "Goldman," rather than like, "Super MAN." You know? There could have been a spinoff about Joel Vultureman, attorney at law, or something.

Sainted Fiancee: And you watched this?

Drek: Oh, I loved it. At least until that season when Thundera-

Sainted Fiancee: Thundera?

Drek: Their homeworld.

Sainted Fiancee: Right. You were saying?

Drek: Until that season when Thundera reformed.

Sainted Fiancee: You didn't like that?

Drek: I just thought it was implausible.

Sainted Fiancee: That's what you thought was implausible?

Drek: I was ten. What do you want from me?

Sainted Fiancee: ...

Drek: Thundercats ho?

As a side note: I should mention that when she was little my Sainted Fiancee's parents didn't allow her to watch any television with even a hint of violence. As such, we have very different recollections from our youth.

As an additional side note: Thundercats broke new ground for children's shows in that, during the first episode, the main characters spent a lot of time... well... naked. It was a children's show about an entire race of nudist cat-people. So, basically, the show was a Furry's dearest dream.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You've gotta fight for the rights profits of insurance companies!

Most of you have probably heard of the controversy over SCHIP, or the State Children's Health Insurance Program. This is a program intended to provide medical care for underprivileged children and has become a bone of contention because there is some disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over just who should count as "underprivileged." Democrats think that this definition needs to be expanded to those households that make as much as 300% of the poverty line (i.e. 3 times the poverty amount) while Republicans disagree and wish to see it held down to those at 200% of the poverty line or lower. So, this more or less boils down to a debate over just how poor you have to be before you're eligible for government help in keeping your kids healthy.

Since some studies seem to indicate that for every 100 children enrolled in SCHIP, there is a corresponding loss of 25-50 children covered by private insurers, Republicans fear that the program is some sort of first step towards a dark socialist future for the United States. No, I'm not bloody kidding. Obviously, we don't need to talk about the fact that most of those 100 kids weren't covered by private programs to begin with or that other research shows that children shifted off of SCHIP end up costing the state more money due to the increased use of emergency services. Evidently for some Republicans, keeping 25-50 customers for insurance companies is worth letting 50-75 children suffer with no insurance, and costing the taxpayers money. In other words: Republicans want us to subsidize the profits of insurance companies. As always, the only kind of welfare Republicans like is corporate welfare.

Now, I don't want to get into a gigantic argument about how much we should be willing to pay to protect insurance companies: you can probably roughly guess my views given that I am more sympathetic to capitalism than not. Instead, I want to address claims by some Republicans that Democrats are looking to irresponsibly spend money. Are Democrats looking to waste money? Well, with the aid of a spiffy graphic shamelessly stolen from the excellent Jesus' General, you tell me:

Republicans tell me that if we don't fight terrorists in Iraq we're going to have them here. That's always seemed a little speculative to me- it's not like "teh terrorists" care that much about Iraq. What doesn't seem speculative, however, is that if we don't fight poverty, ignorance, and chronic ill health here in the United States... well... guess what we're going to have?

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anonymity and Academia

Recently a debate has been occurring over the proper role of anonymity in academic blogging. While I don't want to spend a lot of time recounting the course of this debate,* I will point you to Wicked Anomie's interesting remarks on the subject. She provides a number of links to the various arguments for and against anonymity, and is thus a good starting point. A number of points have been made so far in this discussion but the primary attractors seem to be some combination of "anonymity allows you to be irresponsible" and "anonymity protects those who are relatively low in the disciplinary hierarchy." The latter of these is suggested fairly clearly by Wicked Anomie (see the link above) while the former is addressed, if only implicitly, in a post by the interesting Plain(s)feminist.**

This debate is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon for the simple reason that both sides are correct. Anonymity does protect those of us who are low on the totem pole- particularly since the job market is as competetive as it is. It has been said to me that any small detail can potentially kill your chances at a particular department. As such, the act of blogging, even if you restrict your blogging to stale, well-trod academic topics, is likely to be a problem. If you propose creative, untried ideas, you may be looked down upon because you don't accept some senior professor's pet theory and if you stick to the tried-and-true you run the risk of being viewed as uncreative and dull. Nothing like a lose-lose situation to make us all feel excited. At the same time, anonymity can allow the anonymous to engage in poor behavior. I think that I have been guilty of this previously,*** though as I have matured more as a scholar and a blogger I like to think that this tendency has decreased. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether or not I have been successful. Despite these indiscretions, however, I have always prided myself on two countervailing virtues: that I do not in any way restrict comments, so people who disagree with me are quite free to say so publicly right there alongside my post, and that I have a standing offer to post rebuttals from those I have criticized. Does that excuse poor behavior on my part? Nah, not really, but at least I'm not being as abusive with my anonymity as I could be.

In any case, I don't see the debate as likely to be resolved based on the existing arguments, and so I have no interest in really discussing them. Instead, I want to simply make an observation: as scholars in sociology we should not be as uncomfortable with anonymity as we seem to be. Our dominant form of peer review is, after all, double-blind, meaning that authors don't know who their reviewers are and reviewers don't know who the authors are. This has been explained to me as a way to prevent personal conflicts from tainting the review process- if you don't know that the really cool paper you're reviewing was written by someone you hate, you can't be unfair to them. I think this is a valid argument, but I also think that there's a second purpose implicit in the system: to thwart the operation of status characteristics.

Research in the status characteristics area has provided substantial empirical support for the idea that possessing a valued characteristic (e.g. maleness, heterosexuality, whiteness, etc.) can bias others. Specifically, those who are viewed as having higher status are expected to be more useful in collective tasks, are given more opportunities to contribute, and are rated more favorably when they do so. So, for many people, the mere knowledge that a person is male, white, and heterosexual is sufficient to convince them that said individual will be more productive in a group. Is this necessarily true? Nah. Sometimes it is, but the effects of status characteristics often extend beyond one limited domain.**** So why is this relevant for peer review? Well, think about it: if you receive a paper from a professor at Berkeley and a paper from a grad student at Southeastern Louisiana Agricultural Community College, which one are you likely to be more optimistic about? Right- the Berkeley faculty member. Now, next question, is it necessarily the case that the grad student can't possibly have good ideas or a good study? Of course not. The reality is that his or her project may well be of higher quality than the faculty member's. By using blind peer review, we allow for the possibility that knowing about the status characteristics of our authors may influence our rating of their work.

Now don't get me wrong: my strong suspicion is that the Berkeley faculty member above is much more likely to produce good work, but this is a statement of probability not certainty. The point is that by trying to defeat the influence of status characteristics we at least leave open the possibility of recognizing, and appreciating, work from a low status individual at a low status institution. Anonymity in this case may help us to improve the quality of the ideas circulating in the discipline as a whole. At the same time, the system is vulnerable to abuse and we have all had the experience of receiving a review that is so startlingly incompetent that we want to find said reviewer and beat him or her with a tire iron. These are, however annoying they may be, the costs of obtaining the benefits of blind peer review and we pay them becaue those benefits are worth it.

And so we return to the issue of anonymous blogging. We are all used to a small group of anonymous individuals exerting an unbelieavable amount of power over our careers through the peer review system, so why should we view bloggers with such fear? It seems likely that one anonymous blogger will have less effect on our career prospects than even one anonymous reviewer. Moreover, in exchange for the potential hassles of those pesky anonymous bloggers, we may get in return a lively intellectual exchange between smart people who might not otherwise listen to each other.

Is this a good trade? That's for you to decide, but I know what I think.

* Not least because I've been sick, and busy, and haven't followed said debate as closely as I should have. Still, if blogging isn't about uninformed opinions, what is it about?

** I'm not even going to attempt to address Plain(s)feminsits possible change of names. It's just too much of a pain to call her the "possibly-former-Plain(s)feminsit," although in blog tradition I suppose I could go with "PFP(s)F."

*** No, I'm not going to provide a link. I haven't deleted these incidents but I'm not going to assist the curious in locating them.

**** For the technically minded in the audience, status characteristics take two forms: specific and diffuse. Specific characteristics confer status in one area while diffuse characteristics confer it in many area. Thus, being a carpenter would impact your status when engaged in wood working activities, but have no impact in other pursuits. Male sex, on the other hand, might produce expectations of competence in a wide variety of areas without any specific skills necessarily being present. Above I am primarily discussing diffuse status characteristics.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

I think that's the smell of terror in the air...

Ladies and Gentlemen, as I sit here writing these words, I find myself in an unusual situation: I am watching my class take an exam.* Exams are funny things, really. On the one hand, we all know that a short examination cannot possibly reveal the full extent of our students' knowledge.** On the other hand, they're often our only way to actually plumb the depths of that knowledge. So, like it or not, we're stuck with them.

As a student I usually disliked and feared exams but, at the same time, had an odd fascinaton with them. My usual feeling before an exam was that I simply wanted to get started on it already. More often than not, by the time the exam actually started, I had hit my point of feeling "ready," whether I actually was or not. When I took the GREs, I recall sitting with a group of other candidates as we waited for the exam center to open. They were feverishly studying, attempting to maximize every moment before the exam. I, to their dismay, built card castles. By my logic, I had already done all the improving I was going to do, and I might as well try to be relaxed for the exam.***

Sadly, my students largely don't have this attitude. I have spent several hours today walking past students who were feverishly cramming for the exam. I have spent considerable time this morning answering their questions. Some of them, I can tell already, are going to do quite well. Some of them, on the other hand, are almost certainly going to be utterly obliterated. Exams are often a study in extremes and I find myself rooting for my struggling students, knowing that as often as not I will be disappointed. As a student I always suspected that my instructors didn't care very much about their students' performance- that they were some sort of impassive grading machines. Sometimes, really, I was right. Often, however, the truth is otherwise: instructors feel triumph and heartbreak when their students succeed and fail and frequently it is only professionalism that keeps us from "adjusting" the grades.

And, of course, I know as I sit here with my students that they feel the same things about me. They imagine that I don't really care, that their success or failure is irrelevant to me. And, whether I can tell them or not, I know that they're wrong.

You've gotta love the irony.

* Which means that I'm using the quasi-functional wireless internet installed by the deranged monkeys that handle IT for my campus.

** Then again, I do think tests are often useful tools for determining the extent of a student's ignorance, so I guess their utility depends on how optimistic your question is.

*** This is ironic as during the test I was so convinced of my poor performance that I kicked a hole in a wall during a bathroom break. As it turns out, I did quite well, but that isn't the point.

As a side note: Yes, this is largely an excuse to not write a more substantive post. What can I say? I have a presentation this afternoon and I need the time.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Public schools, religious spam

Amazingly, evenliberalMadison with all those radical perfessers rampaging along the bike paths isn't free of church-state separation problems. It turns out that the Madison school district has a policy that lets various groups send flyers home with kids for activities that aren't sponsored by the schools. [*] One such flyer, for an area church event, brought this message to around 2,000 elementary school kids:
Don't Neglect the 3 R's. Religion, Relationships and Rejoicing!
Shockingly, the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected. Cannily, their objection is not just directed at the religious message, but more generally to the entire concept of using the schools as a cheap substitute for advertising mail:
The District should not act as a PR machine for nonschool enterprises. Let these churches and groups do their own legwork: pay for advertising, leaflet neighborhoods, buy the available lists from the Department of Public Instruction.
The school district's response was amazingly weak in several respects. The superintendent described the policy's intent as creating a "limited public forum" [**], a school board member involved in establishing the policy suggested that some parents find it useful [***], and reportedly few parents avail themselves of an opt-out provision [****].

But what cinches the matter, especially given my warped perspective from the postal economics world, is the implied behavioral distortion from the subsidy. The pastor of the church reported having learned about the backpack mail system from other churches who had been using it. Here's what he said about the response rate:
"We did not get any new families or children as a result of the flier, nor did we get any phone calls or complaints about it," he said. "We just appreciate the cooperation we have had from the school district."
I'm sure they did. Other flyers reportedly attracted one or two families to events. If they had to mail the flyer, the church likely would have paid several hundred dollars for some combination of a mailing list, postage, and mail preparation services [*****]. Maybe someone has Actual Data to show that I'm wrong, but this seems to me like it would be lot of money to spend to get one family to attend a church picnic — enough, indeed, that I'd wager that they wouldn't have mailed the flyer at all if they didn't have the almost-free alternative postal system to use.

Like e-mail spam, where infinitesimal costs make it sustainable in the face of infinitesimal response rates, the school's almost-free distribution channel encourages advertising that wouldn't otherwise happen even with concessional rates available to nonprofit organizations. And it defies my credulity that a policy that promotes advertising that wouldn't be viable as direct mail is welfare-enhancing.

[*] The material must be for children's programs, be legal and "appropriate" in the view of the district, and not promote activities outside of school during the school day. Neither of the local papers' accounts indicated whether (and what kinds) of materials may have been screened as inappropriate, but that would seem to be a vulnerability for the policy, particularly if it were used to reject materials from some other faith-based group.

[**] These messages only are a "forum" in the "marketplace" sense of the term.

[***] The backpack mail is used by sponsors of a variety of activities (sports leagues, children's theatre groups, etc.) that reasonably may attract kids' interest, but which also are not at all hard to find by other means.

[****] This is the last refuge of the direct marketing scoundrel; the industry favors opt-out provisions over opt-in because the former are only relatively effective for severe nuisances like telemarketing.

[*****] The applicable postal rates start at about a dime off the 41-cent First-Class stamp price and can be as low as 6.6 cents, though accessing the steeper discounts usually requires engaging the services of mailing firms.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Phenylephrine hydrochloride is my friend.

Today, some of you will be distressed to hear, is not a good day for blogging. This is for the simple reason that I am suffering from a head cold and thus am having a difficult time thinking. Given how little thought goes into my typical blog post, you should all be quite horrified at this prospect. So, rather than attempting to force myself to compose a vaguely entertaining or useful post, I am going to reserve my limited resources for more productive activities today.

Does this mean that y'all are on your own for diversion today? Nah. I've got you covered. Instead of suffering through my usual crap, please enjoy this fascinating, and entertaining, presentation from a lexicographer. Don't know what a lexicographer is? Then watch the clip. You'll be glad you did.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tales from the Office: Sometimes they make me want to drink Edition

The Scene: Drek is in his office finishing up a meeting with a student who has been out sick for several days.

Student: So I should go ahead and do this assignment that was turned in while I was out?

Drek: Yes, absolutely. Go ahead and do it. Reviewing chapter seven will also help you a lot there.

Student: So, is chapter seven, like, really important for the first test?

Drek: Yes, but beyond that it's really important for the rest of the class. If you understand the material in that chapter it will help you for the rest of the semester.

Student: So I should, like, read that chapter then?

Drek: ...

Drek: Yes. Ideally, you should really be reading all the chapters that are assigned.

Student: Oh. OH! I didn't realize that.

Drek: Yeah. That's why they're on the syllabus.

Student: Usually I just read the summaries.

Drek: Well that's.... something at least.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How... touching.

Currently a court case is being waged in California over whether or not students graduating from certain religious high schools will receive credit from the University of California system. At issue is, particularly, the instruction given in biology and evolution. The textbook used in many of these classes, Biology for Christian Schools, is published by Bob Jones University Press, which is not exactly a powerhouse in academic publishing. Bob Jones University, of course, is dedicated to promoting one of the most startlingly oppressive versions of Christianity Messianism the world has ever seen. The religious schools contend that the book teaches standard biology and simply adds material of a religious nature. That is not, of course, all that they do, and I don't need to explain why: the links above will do that for me.

What I just want to point out however, thanks to the fine work of Mike Dunford over at The Questionable Authority, is that some of the material in the book goes a shade beyond what we might regard as strict biology. For example, on pages 779 and 780 in a box on "Sexually Transmitted Diseases:"

When the AIDS epidemic began, some people said that the disease was God's judgment on the sins of homosexuals and fornicators since they were the primary ones affected by the disease. Many were offended by such an analysis, claiming that it is unreasonably cruel to tell people in pain that they have caused their own disease. Nevertheless, the Bible does teach that diseases that result from sexual impurity are part of God's punishment of sin (Rom. 1:27). Such punishment is in fact evidence of God's grace. It allows the sinner to experience the offensiveness of his sin and points him to the need for a Savior - "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

This argument is repulsive enough in and of itself, but only suffers when we consider that 5% to 10% or worldwide infections with AIDS derive from blood transfusions, and that without treatment infected mothers can transmit the disease to their unborn or breast feeding children as much as 25% of the time. Does anyone really think that bearing a child or getting a blood transfusion is an offense to god? No? I suspected as much.

Ignoring the issue of whether or not this book should be regarded as acceptable course material, I truly do not understand why anyone would want to portray their god as such a stupid, clumsy, heartless monster.

Nor, come to think of it, can I understand why anyone would want to be made in such an image. More likely, it seems to me, that we made him in the image of ourselves.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A compelling solution.

I routinely follow the writings of those I disagree with. I find this helps me keep my mind limber, since I constantly have to grapple with perspectives that I dislike, and it keeps me forewarned, so that I am not surprised in arguments. One way that I keep up with those I disagree with is to keep an occasional eye on World Net Daily, the crazy evangelical news site that doesn't need actual reporters, becuase the Bible tells them everything anyway.

Recently, World Net Daily "published" an article dealing with the recent prominence of atheists in public discourse. Of course, this isn't exactly the way they explained the situation:

THE RISE OF ATHEIST AMERICA: Why almost half of voters polled say they'd support a God-denier for president

The signs are everywhere. Many of America's top-selling books right now are angry, in-your-face, atheist manifestos. Judges try to outdo each other in banning references to God like the Ten Commandments and the "Under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. And nearly half of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, would be willing to vote for an atheist for president of the United States of America – a nation founded by devout Christians.

In its groundbreaking September edition, titled "THE RISE OF ATHEIST AMERICA," WND's monthly Whistleblower magazine provides a powerfully eye-opening analysis of what's really behind the current atheist phenomenon.

So, in other words, they're upset because not quite 50% of the American population seem to think that the mere fact that someone is an atheist isn't sufficient reason to not vote for them. I don't want to get into a half full/half empty sort of discussion here, but that does mean that for more than 50% of the population, a candidate's atheism is sufficient reason to not vote for them. So, really, I don't think theism is in much danger.

I could keep talking about their bizarrely alarmist view of Atheists- our overwhelming numerical inferiority must be threatening to them- but I have bigger fish to fry. The funny thing about World Net Daily is how their articles end. The article I mention above, for example, is really just an extended advertisement for an issue of their "Whistleblower" magazine. The end of the "article" even includes the following:

SPECIAL OFFER: For a limited time, when you subscribe, renew or give a gift Whistleblower subscription for one year WND will send you, FREE (including shipping), an autographed, hardcover copy of the New York Times bestseller, "The Late Great USA: The Coming Merger with Mexico and Canada."

Written by Jerome Corsi, Ph.D., co-author of "Unfit for Command" which became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and a decisive influence in the 2004 election, "The Late Great USA" exposes the multifaceted plan to turn the U.S., Canada and Mexico into a North American version of the European Union.

Subscribe, renew or give a gift subscription for two years and we'll send you, FREE, the acclaimed, in-depth 2-DVD exposé of America's money system, "The Money Masters: How Banks Create the World's Money."

This three-and-a-half-hour, fast-paced historical documentary throws back the veil of deceit hiding the origins and operations of the corrupt banking elite that clandestinely controls America far more than most people realize. In today's climate of financial turmoil and uncertainty, information in "The Money Masters" is more important than ever.

This is a fantastic offer, but it will end soon. So please act now, and don't miss out. Offer good in the U.S. only.

Odd. When was the last time an article you read in the New York Times ended in a pitch for products sold by the New York Times? If you're having a hard time remembering, you're not alone. If you take a look at most of the articles put out by World Net Daily, you'll see the same phenomenon repeated over and over again. For example, their article about how Cindy Sheehan gives the terrorists hope? It's an advertisement for a book titled, in part, "Schmoozing with Terrorists." The article on the upcoming Republican values debate is mostly advertisement free, but ends in a pitch for a book. There are a few articles without any noticeable advertising, but they tend to be articles on other new sites like MSNBC.

Then, we can consider the more blatant product ads on the World Net Daily site. Like the link to a site that sells conservative t-shirts. My favorite is probably the Top Ten Good Things About Liberals, which is entirely blank except for #1: "They die eventually." Don't even get me started on the baby/child shirt that reads "Imagine no liberals." It must be tough teaching children to hate from such a young age.

And that's where the true weirdness of World Net Daily hits me. It's a site that talks, over and over, about how it's pro-Christian and pro-God and pro-religion, and then spends most of its time hate mongering and trying to sell its crap. I mean, honestly, it's as though a preacher inserted product placements into his sermon, explaining how when Lot fled Sodom he stopped to quench his thirst with an ice cold powerade. It reminds me of nothing so much as the "Fosterites" from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land who mesh religion and capitalism into a seamless whole.* Didn't Jesus turn the money changers out of the temple? Didn't he have some rather pointed things to say about mixing money with god? For that matter, didn't he say a thing or two about sin and casting stones? I think he did.

All this causes a lot of trouble for me because I have a difficult time with the fact that the folks on World Net Daily label themselves "Christian" while, at the same time, other folks I know, like Slag, also label themselves as such. And these others that I know are good, decent, forgiving people who do their best to live up to the hardest parts of the bible: the parts about loving, and forgiving, your neighbor. How the hell am I to resolve the idea that these extremes are all Christians?

Well, folks, I've reached an answer, if only for myself. I've decided that they're not both Christians. From here on in I will regard those like Slag who attend to the teachings of Jesus Christ as Christians. Others, like those from World Net Daily, belong to a different religion, a religion that worships a Messiah of hate, bloodshed, and oppression, and I shall label that faith Messianism.**

Stupid? Maybe. Unlikely to catch on? Sure. Helps me sleep at night?

You bet your ass.

* Not unlike Scientology, as it happens, but I digress.

** It is, of course, worth pointing out that I don't personally agree with or approve of many of the teachings of Jesus Christ, but they are by and large superior to the sort of crap the Messianists would have us believe.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Classroom management at its finest.

Folks who keep an eye on the deplorable Fox News may be aware that the U.S. is working on a new super weapon for dealing with demonstrators.* Leaving such technologies as tear gas and rubber bullets in the past, the U.S. will soon have access to a weapon that might well be dubbed the "Barfinator." I refer to a new device that uses rapid pulses of light on cycling frequencies to disorient and nauseate the targets. Obviously, if you can't stop vomiting and you can't keep your balance you're going to have a tough time protesting. Check out this sinister new weapon:

Okay, well, "sinister" may not actually be the correct term. Really, I think we may as well just call this thing the "Dorklight" and be done with it. Nevertheless, a working prototype apparently exists and it seems to be pretty effective:

"There's one wavelength that gets everybody," says IOS President Bob Lieberman. "Vlad [IOS top scientist Vladimir Rubtsov] calls it 'the evil color.'"

Now, I don't have a whole lot to say about this gadget. I don't know that I love the idea of a device that can incapacitate a large group of people so easily but, really, tear gas does that already. Moreover, I suspect that the "collateral damage" of this device will be less severe than with tear gas, and it will probably be easier to defeat. Hell, a good pair of polarizing sunglasses will probably do the trick. So, I don't think this development spells the end of social movements and protest marches the world over.

No, my reaction to this news is pretty straightforward: when will pocket models be available for sale? I mean, really, this thing strikes me as the best classroom management tool ever. Students being unruly? Did they not do their homework? Is nobody willing to talk? Just give them a quick flash of the dorklight and watch them fall all over each other to participate. Students being physically threatening? Dorklight. Students cheating? Dorklight. Cell phones ringing during lecture? Dorklight. Student just kind of pissing you off by grimacing through class? Dorklight. It's an incredibly versatile solution. And, best of all, students who are sleeping in class and not bugging you anyway will be completely unaffected.

Cruel? Perhaps. But, then again, since some folks are considering making their students wear Hello Kitty armbands as punishment for infractions, I don't feel too guilty. Either way there will be vomiting, but at least the Dorklight can be shut off quickly.

It's a great day for education!

* i.e. individuals who don't realize that the founding fathers were just kidding about that whole "right to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances" thing. Noobs.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Missing the point.

Recently, as I am want to do, I took a short break from working and loaded up the old Conservapedia main page. I do this periodically for a number of reasons including a desire to keep track of the very right wing among us, as well as a desire to understand people who have an outlook so different from mine. I would also add that I find it amusing, but that isn't really true. As my Sainted Fiancee could tell you, I typically come away from Conservapedia rather dejected. Yet, somehow, I always go back.* In any case, on one of my recent forays I happened to notice that they have a new "Article of the Month" about someone that you and I may recognize:

Yep, that's right: Conservapedia is talking about Joseph McCarthy. For those who don't know, Senator Joseph McCarthy is notorious for his pursuit of communist infiltrators in the U.S. government during the Cold War. This pursuit was characterized by the sort of jusiprudence not seen since the Court of the Star Chamber. This period in American history has even given rise to the term "McCarthyism," as a way of referring to a public witch hunt intended to defame the "defendants" as much as to determine the truth. Keeping this in mind, let's take a look at Conservapedia's summary statement about McCarthy:

Beginning in 1950, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy became the most visible public figure to stand up to Communist infiltration of the United States. Learn what Wikipedia does not inform you about the vast Communist conspiracy that almost undermined the United States Government!

My reaction to this was to quizzically tilt my head one way and then another, like a dog confronted with a record player, and wonder what sort of bizarre alternate universe this article was written in. Needless to say, I had to read more.

And what a read it was, too! According to Conservapedia, McCarthy was a hard working senator who only wanted to protect America from an insidious band of communist infiltrators. Moreover, according to their expert analysis of newly declassified intelligence information, there really was a huge conspiracy of communist spies. My word! Perhaps this means that McCarthy has been unfairly labelled by history? Perhaps this means, as conservapedia asserts, that McCarthy was unfairly harassed by Edward R. Murrow for nothing but being a patriot?

Sure. Right. And I'm really an alien from the planet Xarkon-5 who survives on the brains of innocent puppies.**

Look, leaving aside the fact that the Venona project intercepts are, at best, difficult to interpet and therefore are of dubious value in confirming McCarthy's accusations, there's still another slight issue. That issue is that, when labeling someone as having "communist tendencies," McCarthy used such "stringent" criteria as "was at some point associated with the ACLU." Oddly enough the Conservapeons are rather venomous about the ACLU, claiming that it never defends Christian speech. This, of course, ignores the fact that the ACLU has defended none other than those crazy assholes at Westboro Baptist Church.*** In any case, for McCarthy, simply disagreeing with the Republican party was more or less enough to get you branded a Communist sympathizer.

Yet, ultimately, this isn't the real problem and the Conservapeons are missing the real point. The issue isn't whether or not the people that McCarthy persecuted were, in fact, communist sympathizers. Some of them undoubtedly were. The issue is how he went about dealing with the situation. In this nation we have the rule of law and people are not to be accused, or convicted, of crimes without evidence and due process. McCarthy often proceeded with neither, destroying reputations and lives in a callous bid to win power and esteem. He resembled nothing so much as a witch hunter or a Catholic Inquisitor. Certainly if you torture and question thousands of people some of them will turn out to be heretics, but is that really justice? Do the ends truly justify the means?****

McCarthy isn't villified because he was necessarily wrong about the communists, he is villified because he trampled the most basic freedoms that Americans have. Moreover, he deserves to be villified for that.

And the fact that some conservatives don't grasp that basic fact scares the hell out of me. All I can say is: if you want to vote for freedom, vote Democrat.

* That I do so probably provides some insight as to why I have managed to get through grad school thus far.

** I just know that somebody out there is going to take that as a confession...

*** They also defended conservative paragon Rush Limbaugh, not to mention their actions on the behalf of Oliver North.

**** For some, the answer is "yes."

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Posting here, there, and everywhere...

For those who are curious, today I am posting over on Marginal Utility. My topic is a recent article from the Washington Post that suggests that it may be harder to combat myths than we ever expected. It might be worth taking a look at if you're a teacher or have an interest in public health.

And if you're neither of those things.... hell, it's still probably better than working, right?

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What should we do on 9/11?

We at Total Drek would obviously like to extend our sympathy to the families and friends of those killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, U.S. soldiers killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all the innocent victims of those wars. All around the U.S., and among all our many, many friends around the world, people are taking this day to remember all of the victims of these terrible events.

How can we best remember this day? The best way is to remember not only the terrible attacks, but also the beauty that came after it. For the week or so after 9/11, millions of Americans set aside time in their lives for public service. Some drove to New York to help with the rescue efforts any way they could. Some reached out to Arab-Americans in their own communities, trying to promote understanding. Millions of people gave money, or blood, to organizations like the Red Cross.

Even politicians got into the spirit of unity, with Republicans and Democrats temporarily setting aside partisanship to sing God Bless America* on the steps of the Capitol. We can't set aside partisanship all the time; we are partisan because the parties differ on issues that matter. but we all have to remember the ideal of government. We elect the government, and they work for us. They do the best they can to make our country, states, and communities into the best places they can be.

After 9/11, even the advertising industry contributed, with the prestigious Ad Council's I Am an American campaign (which sadly doesn't run much anymore, at a time when we still desperately need understanding of what makes America great).

One website is trying to bring that spirit back. My Good Deed was founded by family and friends of a volunteer firefighter in New York who died in the World Trade Center collapse (see the Christian Science Monitor story here). The site encourages people to think about one or more good deeds they can do during 9/11. People register with the site and promise to do good deeds, nationally or locally. The site includes links to charities of both types.

So, I encourage you to do something good, today. Help turn 9/11 from a day of tragedy into a day where we all work together to make the world a better place.

*I hate, hate, HATE that song. We have one of the best national anthems in the world, an epic, stirring song about a young nation finding its voice in the world. Why replace it, even unofficially, with a musically boring song whose lyrics make millions of people uncomfortable? But I certainly appreciate the sentiment of Republicans and Democrats signing together on the steps of the Capitol.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's just clear this up then.

As regular readers of my blog know I am something of a fan of science. Okay, that's understating matters: I love science. I think it's a very useful system and turns up some utterly fascinating information. I love science so much, I decided to become a scientist myself. Whether or not I'm successful in this endeavor remains to be seen but, hey, at least I have a fall back plan.

In any case, references to science play a fairly prominent role in classes that I teach. I think it's actually more or less impossible to explain sociology to students without at least touching on the fact that sociology is the scientific study of human society. This is important because people have been studying human society and human behavior for as long as there have been humans, but most of that study has been anything but scientific. The problem with this approach, as I have discovered, is that most students don't have the faintest idea what science really is.

Think about it for a moment: what is the experience of science for the average college freshman? They've been in "science classes" since they were little, but these classes primarily taught them facts. In biology they leared taxonomic systems, ideas about evolution, biological structure, and so on. In chemistry they learned about atoms, molecules, bonds, reactions, and so forth. In physics they learned equations, thought experiments, and perhaps some real bench experiments. We could go on with this, but I trust my point is more or less clear: most freshman think of "science" as being a whole mess of facts written down in books that need to be memorized for the test. The problem is, this is not actually science.

The misconception makes sense because most people learn "science" as "facts," but it does us a disservice. It's also a misconception that causes more difficulty in the social sciences than, say, in the physical sciences. And to explain why, allow me to use this comic strip that I have shamelessly stolen from Piled Higher and Deeper:

Interdisciplinary spats aside, this strip is motivated by the common difficulty many people have in distinguishing social science from humanities. Sadly enough, this is also true of some people within the humanities and the social sciences, but I digress. The difference isn't that the humanities and social sciences study different things- often we study the same things. It isn't that one of us is populated by smarter people than the other- often we're equally bright.* The difference is in how we go about answering our questions. Science is, ultimately, deeply committed to gathering data and trying to analyze it in as objective a way as possible. Furthermore, we adhere to fairly specific and demanding rules for how we should go about performing this data collection and analysis. The humanities are not so constrained and are not so guided. The issue isn't in what we attempt to do, but in how we go about doing it.

And this is the reality of science that I often find myself teaching my students. Science isn't a body of knowledge, but rather is a method for uncovering new knowledge and continually validating the old. Science isn't what we know, but rather how we know it. If we find that some fact is incorrect that doesn't mean that science itself has been overturned- indeed, the odds are good that science invalidated that fact in the first place- it simply means that a fact is untrue. This is a strength of science, that its only firm positions are in regards to how we should discover things, and is also a weakness, because it means that science is inherently limited. Science cannot tell you how you should live your life, it cannot tell you what is ultimately important, and it cannot give you wisdom. What it can do, however, is gradually allow us to build an amazingly accurate understanding of the world we live in. And that ability, in and of itself, makes science useful to have around. That we in the social sciences are confronted with this issue more often than other sciences is a simple consequence of what we study. I know relatively few philosophers who are really that interested in speculating on the existence of various types of particles included in the standard model. On the other hand, everyone is interested in the human condition, from philosophers and social scientists to truck drivers and ditch diggers.***

Social scientists are different from others with an interest in the human condition not because we care more, or are smarter, or are somehow better, but because we use the method of science to attempt to unravel social problems. We do this for the simple reason that science has proven itself, time and again, to be the single most powerful method for discovering fact ever conceived by humanity. Does this mean that non-scientific approaches have nothing to add? Of course not.

But you bet your ass that the contributions of social scientists are unique and valuable. And I, for one, am damn proud of that.

* HA! I kid. Social scientists are waaaay smarter.**

** I don't even know myself if I'm kidding.

*** Arguably, ditch diggers may be even more interested in the human condition than those of us with comfy office jobs, but that isn't the point.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

What's the difference between a toddler and a chimp?

Following on the heels of yesterday's exciting science news comes this new report of a study comparing the cognitive abilities of Chimpanzees and Orangutangs to human toddlers. Specifically, to human 2 1/2 year olds. The findings are rather provocative: in most respects human toddlers perform about the same as adult Chimps and Orangutangs, displaying more or less equal problem solving and memory abilities. This is, of course, not so good for the non-humans since a 2 1/2 year old human child is, by comparison to an adult, rather simple-minded, but that isn't the point. If chimps and Orangutangs were that much more intelligent than us, they'd be running the studies, so no surprises yet. In any case, the difference does not appear to be in terms of raw cognitive ability but, instead, in terms of sociability.

All primates are social, and indeed a large proportion of mammals are social, but humans appear to be absurdly social. In the study it appeared that human toddlers were consistently more likely to infer intention and to develop and maintain at least a rudimentary understanding of the thoughts and feelings of other humans. In one trial toddlers guided a human researcher to the location of hidden food while the non-human primates did not. If nothing else, this may suggest that norms of reciprocity become active in humans at a very, very young age. Indeed, why guide another individual to food unless you expect them to share it with you, or otherwise reward you for it? Additionally, it appears that humans learn from observing others more rapidly than do non-human primates. Toddlers who saw a researcher demonstrate how to open a container of food would then reproduce the researcher's actions. Chimpanzees and Orangutangs, by contrast, would open the container, but usually through the application of brute force.

The interesting thing to me about this study is that it suggests that one of the big reasons why humans may be different from other species is that we are so intensely, unbelievably social. We may be smarter than just about everything else on the planet* but that isn't the whole story- it's also that we work in groups sufficiently well that we gain access to the product of each other's efforts. What one of us learns, many can learn, and can learn it quickly. Human society in some ways may represent an evolutionary paradigm shift similar to the first true multicellular organisms. We may be the social equivalent of a shift from mat-like bacterial colonies to the specialized, but rudimentary, communities of cells known as the sponges.**

And this revelation really puts Anomie's recent post into perspective. She joked that sociology, obviously the queen of the sciences, should be the discipline to usher in the rule of scientists and a new golden age for mankind. I tend to agree with Jeremy, however, that if we actually held the reigns of power it would be a disaster. Leaving aside the obvious excesses of Auguste Comte, however, we are forced to the conclusion that the importance of social life has often been underestimated. It may not just be that humans happen to be social, but that our sociability is our most defining feature. Our strength as a species may be that we come together in such large, enduring groups with such amazingly fluidity.

I don't think that sociology is the queen of the sciences, but in a way I think that it is the science of the future. Physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth have given humanity immense power over our world. Unfortunately, we know relatively little about how to wield that power safely and responsibly. Our future survival depends on our ability to resolve our differences, to live in peace with each other, and to balance our needs against the needs of our natural environment. We have to learn to do something that no other species has ever had to do: show restraint when there is no force on earth that can stop us except for ourselves. Can sociology help us develop this restraint? I don't know.

But I hope so.

* So far as we can tell, anyway.

** A pretty interesting thought by itself. One is forced to wonder what more complex forms of social organization might be possible.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The fairy people

Those who keep an eye on science news may have heard the new findings about moray eels. Specifically, the finding that their second jaw (located behind the first) can actually reach up through their throat into the mouth, grab prey, and drag it back down. It's a little like the critters in the movie "Alien" only not quite as bizarre. Moray eels aren't the only fish to have secondary jaws like this, and scientists knew that morays had these jaws for some time, but this ability is something of a surprise.

The discovery can be attributed to scientists at the University of California- Davis and, particularly,* to Rita Mehta who studies, as she puts it, feeding behavior in elongated vertebrates. So, you know, snakes, eels, my uncle Ted, and so forth. Using a high speed camera, Mehta was able to show how the eels reach up with their second jaws to grab food. There's some awesome video of this as part of the coverage on the NPR website as well as audio of Steve Inskeep and friend singing the classic song "That's a Moray."** You should really go check it out. I bring this up today, first, because it's totally cool. This is the sort of exotic innovation that keeps evolutionary biologists interested in their work. It also really helps emphasize the diversity of the animal kingdom.

I also bring it up because I'm more or less waiting for the Intelligent Design folks to get wind of this. Particularly, I'm waiting for something to show up over on Wild Bill's blog Uncommon Descent. What we have here is a complex structure with many interrelated parts. Moreover, it is a relatively unusual structure. As a consequence, I fully expect to see a post before long wondering how the "darwinists" will explain this new discovery that "clearly" can only be the result of intelligent action. This is a pretty common tactic for them so I don't think I'm being unfair if pre-emptively mocking them.*** The thing is, if we concede for a moment that this feature is difficult for evolution to explain,**** how does intelligent design improve on the situation? Consider the following approaches to understanding this system, one deriving from evolutionary biology, and one deriving from intelligent design creationism:

Evolutionary Biology: The Moray Eel has been found to have a second jaw with a complex arrangement of teeth and musculature. This feature is, as of now, unknown in other fish. We don't know how this happened. SO: Let's sequence the DNA and compare it to other relatives and try and determine the evolutionary trajectory of this feature. Let's try to understand how this was adaptive for the eel, and trace the adaptiveness of the feature over time. Can we find precursors of this feature in fossil traces of other fish? Are there other organisms under similar environmental pressures and, if so, can we find any evidence of adaptations to serve a similar purpose? Do other eels have a similar sort of ability? If not, why not?

Intelligent Design: The Moray Eel has been found to have a second jaw with a complex arrangement of teeth and musculature. This feature is, as of now, unknown in other fish. We don't know how this happened. SO: God did it. Rockin work there, Holy One!

Is this example a little caustic? Sure, but it's also accurate. The problem with intelligent design***** is that it is a dead end. Its starting point "we don't know how this happened" is effectively also its stopping point because "some inexplicable and supremely powerful force must have done it" doesn't actually tell us anything. It reminds me of nothing so much as the fairy people.

Don't know what I mean? Let me enlighten you. When she was little my cousin, Laura, believed in invisible friends known as the fairy people. Once, she came to visit my parents for a few days and my aunt asked my mother to try and disabuse Laura of the notion that the fairy people existed. My mother was good about this until the last day when, having returned from a trip to the park, she raced upstairs and colored in two pages in my cousin's coloring book. On discovering the pages my cousin asked my mother, "Did you color these?" To which my mother replied: "No... it must have been the fairy people."****** Certainly the coloring book was there, and it was colored in, but there were a number of viable explanations aside from "the fairy people," especially since my cousin knew my mother had both the opportunity and the capability to color the pages herself. I'm not blaming my cousin- she was, after all, a small child- but I am blaming the proponents of intelligent design.

We have interesting features in many plants and animals. We have a plausible set of mechanisms that we know produce variation in living things. We have plenty of fossil evidence showing evolution through time. And yet, somehow, they still prefer to believe in the fairy people.

That might be cute in a child, but it's disgraceful in an adult.

* Mehta is lead-author with Peter Wainwright as her co-author.

** As in: "When an eel bites your thigh as you're just swimming by, that's a moray. When you scream and you beg but it still bites your leg, that's a moray."

*** I don't have any good examples of this tactic right now, although I can point you to their recent comparison of the opposition to intelligent design to the slow acceptance of imaginary numbers. Jason Rosenhouse neatly eviscerated this argument so I will decline to treat it myself. I will limit myself to observing that you're in trouble if the best argument you can come up with for your god is to compare it to something that is explicitly labelled "imaginary."

**** I don't think many scientists would concede anything of the sort, but that isn't the point.

***** More accurately: " of the many problems with intelligent design."

****** If I'm an asshole, I come by it honestly. Someday maybe I'll tell you about my father. Suffice it to say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Different paths

A lot of the people who read this blog are academics of some sort and sociologists in particular- and I'm fairly sure about that because I asked. What this means is that most of us have little, if any, experience with personal fame. Oh, don't get me wrong: some of us are pretty important in our own little corners of the world, but we don't have anything like the regard that accrues to some other folks who, I like to think, contribute less to society. Most of the time, I think that's a good thing. The job academics do is a little weird and I think it benefits from a certain amount of isolation and anonymity. If our research efforts were followed the way that, say, Barry Bonds' home runs are, I think we'd be in trouble. If nothing else, I'd hate to have to take drug tests every week to prove that I wasn't using illegal amounts of caffeine.

It's also the case that fame can do some pretty harsh things to people- especially if fame comes to them young. We all remember Drew Barrymore, who has an excellent image now, and was a cute little girl, but also went through a somewhat... troubled period. More recently we can think of Britney Spears, who has clearly been suffering rather a lot, as well as Lindsay Lohan, who is also experiencing some problems. Indeed, retrospectives about various celebrities are almost all stories of despair and personal failure. This is, perhaps, why such programs are so popular: there's something in many of us that delights in seeing the powerful and respected laid low.

And all that is why I'm so pleased that, now and then, there are some real exceptions. Particularly, every so often, there is an intersection between the cloistered world of academia and the glitzy world of fame. What on earth am I talking about? Why, I'm speaking of Danica McKellar, of course. You remember Danica, don't you? She's the child actress who played Winnie in the popular series The Wonder Years. What you may not know is that, since finishing that popular role, she has been pretty busy. Specifically, she has earned a BS in Mathematics from UCLA, graduating summa cum laude, and has co-published a proof that could be referred to as the "Chase-McKellar-Winn" theorem. Not exactly a history of booze and drugs but I suppose we can take it. More recently, she's received a lot of attention for publishing the book Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, which encourages young women to pursue mathematics. The book, by the way, has received a favorable review from Tara Smith of Aetiology.

Now, I know that some folks have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, we all like to see someone encouraging girls to stick with math. Speaking personally, I figure that women have to account for about 51% of the total brainpower in our species, so it's a shame that so many cultures nudge women away from pursuits that fully harness that potential. So, I think this work has a lot of potential to help correct certain deleterious trends. On the other hand, some folks have criticized McKellar for perpetuating stereotypes about women- such as with that "without breaking a nail" bit. That may be and, indeed, McKellar is receiving as much attention as she is because our society frankly has a hard time believing that someone who looks like she does would be good at math. People who are good at math are supposed to look a bit different. In a sense, then, the attention the book is receiving itself reinforces certain ideas about women. One could also, I suppose, make the argument that this book increases the pressure on women to "do it all," a pressure that I'm told men don't experience.*

These are all reasonable points and I think that, to an extent, they're all correct. This book is a good way to try to reach young girls before they get turned off from mathematics but, along the way, it may also reinforce some potentially deleterious ideas. Such is life. Georg Simmel was pretty clear that most social mechanisms have multiple effects, so I don't see why we should be all that damned surprised about it now. The thing is, I expect this mixed-message approach is actually a major strength of the book, rather than a liability. Like it or not, women are expected to be certain things much as men are expected to be certain things, and it's difficult to get anyone, much less kids, to stop conforming. As a result, if you want to change some behaviors, you may have to reassure your target audience by allowing them to cling to certain others. I've had this experience in teaching gender to undergraduates. As a man, I am less often viewed as being a "feminazi" right off the bat, but I still take pains to try and couch some messages in terms that my male students will find palatable. Does this mean that I don't confront them with hard truths? No. Oh, hell no. But I do make a point of observing that treating women decently is what should be expected of a "real man." I think I get a fairly good response to it, too.

Look, I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the possible shortcomings of the book, but we also shouldn't overlook its virtues. There's a real possibility that Danica McKellar may help at least a few girls discover the beauty of mathematics and, in so doing, chip away at the stereotypes about women and math.

Who here has a problem with that?

* Pardon my skepticism, but I suspect that men feel an awful lot of pressure to "do it all" as well. We just feel it in different arenas and express our tensions about it in our own ways.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Unhelpful Hints

It's fall again and I've begun to notice something around my department: people I don't know. They have these expressions that speak of a curious mixture of fear, uncertainty, and excitement. They're constantly out-of-breath and frequently avoid looking me in the eye. Who are these mysterious people? Fugitives? Sex offenders? Scientologists? No, they're something far more mysterious: first year graduate students.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year- the time when the wee little firsties begin their magical journey into post-graduate education. I don't have a lot of contact with first years anymore, to be frank, largely because I've been here for a really long time. As such I'm one of those scary older grad students who stalks around the department always looking busy.* That said, the appearance of first years reminds me of myself when I was at that point. Particularly, it reminds me of all the stupid shit that I thought I knew then about graduate school. It occurs to me that perhaps I should pass on some of my admittedly poor insights about grad school to future generations. And so, contained here is a random assortment of things I wished I'd realized when I started grad school. I make no guarantees as to the quality of these thoughts- if you want quality you should read Fabio's series of posts "Grad Skool Rulz" rather than this crap. Only take my advice if you want to turn out more or less like me.

Drek's Unhelpful Hints for Graduate Students: Part the First**

(1) It is important to realize as soon as possible that you are not an undergraduate any longer. In fact, you're not really even a student. Grad school is more like an apprenticeship program than traditional schooling. As such, you're here to learn by doing. Stop thinking about what you do as "school" and start thinking of it as "work" and particularly as "your career." You're no longer practicing for your future- you're doing it right now.

(2) Along these lines, keep in mind that nobody is impressed with your ability to get by while doing as little as possible. If you didn't want to do the work, you shouldn't have come to grad school. The idea here is to work hard and accomplish a lot, not just to pass classes.

(3) Grad school has a short game and a long game. The short game is about a year long- passing classes, taking comprehensive exams, finishing a master's thesis, and so on. The long game is about four to five years long and involves positioning yourself for success. The short game is important- you have to pass your classes to keep playing- but the long game is your real path to success. Don't get so wrapped up in the short game that you forget to pick your head up now and then.

(4) Ultimately, as long as you pass, hardly anyone cares about your classes. Don't obsess over them. That said, keep in mind that your classes are taught by faculty who you are going to need to sit on your committees and write your recommendation letters. Don't be rude, don't be obnoxious, and don't be a goof off.

(5) Remember that faculty members are people too. They have lives beyond the department, spouses and children and hobbies and a need for leisure time. When they give you their time, be grateful. When you ask for time, make sure you don't waste it. Also keep in mind that faculty have personalities the same way grad students do. Some of theirs won't mesh with yours, no matter what you do. This can be an exercise in professionalism but, more often, is a signal that you need to work with someone else.

(6) Like it or not, some advisors suck. Some are really hands-on and will help you a lot, but may be very controlling. Some are totally hands-off and will leave you flailing, but give you freedom to follow your own path. Be prepared to figure out what you need and find a way to get it. If you can't work with your current advisor, switch to a new one. You'll make your advisor and yourself happier. Additionally, remember that the person with the greatest stake in your success is you. Don't expect your advisor to run after you with a whip to get you to do your job.

(7) Get to know your faculty. These people will have a lot of control over your life and can help, or hurt, you substantially. Additionally, a lot of them are genuinely fun. If all goes well, you're going to be a colleague of folks like these before too long, so start getting ready.

(8) Remember that your faculty's needs do not always match up with your own. Senior faculty have been busting their asses for twenty years or more to get where they are. They will not be impressed by grad students who miss deadlines. Junior faculty are in the process of busting their asses and don't have time for dead weight. When working for or with faculty make sure that you're meeting their needs if you are going to expect them to help you meet yours.

(9) Most faculty are pretty good people. They're smart, energetic, and often fun. At the same time, a relatively small number are exploiters and will suck you dry if you let them. Figure out who these faculty members are and stay away from them to whatever extent possible.

(10) Get to know older grad students in your department. They've been around the block and can point out potholes that you'd be wise to avoid. They can also be a source of information about which faculty are good to work with. At the same time, keep in mind that grad students have interests of their own. They may not want to share their advisor's attention with someone else. Likewise, take all advice with a grain of salt. Beyond a certain point it's worthwhile to ask why an old grad student hasn't become young faculty yet.

(11) Get to know your own cohort. You're going to spend a lot of time with these folks and they're good study partners and potential collaborators. Social isolation is a near death sentence, so avoid it.

(12) Some departments foster a lot of competition between grad students, some don't. My view is that you're usually better off being helpful and decent to others than not. It's always good to be owed favors and, frankly, a lot of academia runs on goodwill. Don't be a sucker, but don't be an asshole either.

(13) Some grad students realize in the first few years that they've made a horrible mistake in coming to grad school. This is normal. Unfortunately, some of these folks will continue to plod through the program because they don't know what else to do. This is, generally speaking, bad. If this is you, don't do it- you're just wasting time. If this isn't you, don't get too close to these folks as they can be a motivation suck.

(14) Find what works for you and do it. Grad students are different people and, while some of them might work 9-5, others will prefer quasi-nocturnal schedules. In the end, it doesn't matter as long as you get things done.

(15) You're a really smart person. You probably spent most of your college career near the top of your classes. This is good but, when you get to grad school, you will be surrounded by people like yourself. You're all smart, you were all at the top of your classes, and you're all small fish in a big pond. Get over the shock of this as quickly as you can. Being surrounded by smart people is a good thing and will ultimately help you succeed, if you let it.

(16) Grad school is sort of like a marathon crossed with a steeplechase. This is to say that it's a long-ass race with intermittent barriers that you're going to have to clear. Sometimes you will be running with wet feet. Don't try to run grad school like a sprint, doing everything at once- you'll just exhaust yourself. Instead, work steadily throughout your years. And don't forget: when you become faculty the workload will only increase.

(17) The time scale in grad school is really, really long. The publications process can require several years to get one paper from a "final" draft to appearing in print. Other times you may get a paper into print- start to finish- within a year. Be prepared for these long time scales and start early. Any paper you write for a class should be done with an eye towards turing it into a publication later. The sooner you start on this, the better, because you will need these things for the job market.

(18) Learn how, and when, to cut your losses. Some papers are just craptacular and will never get better no matter how much work you put into them. Painful though it may be, let these papers go. Every hour you sink into them is an hour you could have been spending on a paper that actually has a chance.

(19) It's almost more important to work consistently than it is to work long hours. Given the long time scales of grad school, regular consistent performance will mount up rapidly. Don't wait til the last minute to do things.

(20) Remember to have fun. For at least the next few years, grad school is your life. You have to decompress and relax periodically or you'll burn out. Play sports, work out, see movies, hang out with friends... whatever. Just make sure you have a way to unwind.

(21) Fun is good. Too much fun is bad. Remember: you're being paid to be a grad student because the department thinks that there's an outside chance you might turn into a respectable Ph.D. someday. They're going to give you time and space to develop, but this isn't a decade long pass to screw around.

(22) Don't spend too much time reading the blog of some asshole online. His opinions aren't necessarily correct in your case. We're all different people with different styles of working. Find what works for you, do it, and don't feel guilty.

* As it happens, I think I've almost transformed into faculty at this point. I walked into my office last Friday, returning from a quick out-and-back to get a cup of coffee, and realized to my dismay that I was the only person still there. At 2:00 in the afternoon. My immediate thought was, "Shit! Why the hell isn't anyone working?!"

** Labeled as such so that, if I want to add to the list later, I can call it "Part the Second" and make it all look intentional. Cool, eh?

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Just so you know what's going on...

Here in the United States it is Labor Day, the one day a year that we celebrate the sacrifices made by working stiffs everywhere. Tomorrow we go back to shamelessly exploiting the crap out of them. My Sainted Fiancee and I are, oddly enough, working today on various sociology-related projects but- striking a blow for grad students everywhere- are doing it from home. Until later this afternoon, anyway.

Happy Labor Day, folks! Regular blogging resumes tomorrow.

Special thanks to Jorge Cham of PhD Comics for the excellent cartoon above. I will, of course, remove it at his request but he's a nice guy and you should all buy his merchandise. Seriously.

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