Archive for April, 2010

27
Apr
10

In Former Soviet Country, Bill Ratifies You!

By way of our friends at the Oregon Commentator comes this video of the Ukrainian Parliament “discussing” extending the country’s lease to a Russian naval base. Discussing, as in “throwing eggs and smoke bombs.”

God, it looks like a senior-edition of Wild and Krazy Kids. Remember when people were mortified that what’s-his-face-Republican-guy shouted “You lie!” at Obama?

P.S. On a tangentially related note, Dick Cheney recently said in an interview that telling Patrick Leahy to “go fuck yourself” on the floor of the Senate was “sort of the best thing I ever did.” Keep on rockin’ in the free world, Mr. Cheney. Say what you will about the man, but you have to kind of respect his unrestrained chutzpah.

P.P.S. It’s a tradition among my roommates to announce “Dick Cheney shot a man in the face” at random moments, to keep alive the knowledge that, once upon a time, the vice president of the United States of America shot his friend in the face with a shotgun … and then his friend apologize for getting in the way of his birdshot.

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26
Apr
10

Tyranny of the ‘A’ Students? Really? Really.

As someone very closely associated with modern post-secondary education (both as a student and part-time pseudo-instructor) I find PJ O’Rourke’s latest amusing, but not because anything he’s written is actually funny.

You see, the issue isn’t so much students who learn the material and perform well. Even in the most stodgy of disciplines – usually thought of as either physics or math – creative thinking is an extremely valuable skill. Creativity has just as much to do with solving problems in organic chemistry as it does writing the next great American novel. And, further, complex problem solving, understanding systems, working with numbers, and such things are valuable skills if you open a restaurant or do some other thing. Business, whatever.

The real problem, and there are plenty of these folks to be found all around the GPA spectrum, are students who care more about getting an acceptable grade in the class than they do about either understanding the course material or understanding the purpose of learning. The value of an education is simply not the accumulation of some set of facts. Sure, facts are useful and it’s good to know them in many general and specific instances, but over the long-haul the major importance of a collegiate education is learning how to think critically about complex issues and understand that actions have consequences. Unfortunately, these are the things that students obstinately refuse to learn.

As a perfectly well trained economist (and super trustworthy B student in economics), I can say that the main causes are incentives. GPA and standardized testing are used as the only demarcations of success, so students obsess about making grades they find acceptable and/or coughing up the correct answer on an exam. Unfortunately, especially at the secondary level, lazy instructors are encouraged to give multiple choice exams that, really, can only test a student’s ability to cough up the correct sorts of information. Evaluating knowledge and understanding are, frankly, much trickier and more time consuming. Add to this that collegiate instructors are very often evaluated based on student surveys (the scores on which tend to correlate very well with student grade averages) and these kinds of outcomes and obsessions become clear.

When I was a working economist whose main job was “analysis” (read: “playing to my superiors’ confirmation bias”) on a compensation plan most of the people who bothered to call me about it were only interested in why their bonus wasn’t bigger. Simple: they weren’t any good at their jobs, and the quantifiable evidence of that was sitting in a database staring me in the face. If you manage to run off over $20MM in loan assets over the course of a year, for instance, I don’t really think you deserve a bonus of all things. But the plan bred obsession with the plan rather than an interest in improving the skills that would earn them more money. I see the same attitude in students in my help sessions for o-chem: they only want to get a grade because they need to get into med/pharm/optometry/dental school and don’t actually want to have to understand the material to do it. They think they don’t need understanding. That it won’t serve them well in the future.

These are the sort of students who can’t be trusted with power. Working hard, thinking critically, problem solving, working to really understand a complex issue and see the nuances, the details – people who can do these things are valuable resources in basically any field. Unsurprisingly, these are the people who end up in creative disciplines, who generate new knowledge and new advancements. Historians, scientists, industrial researchers, computer programmers: people who create and produce.

The other students, the ones obsessed with grades and metrics, the ones driven by lust rather than curiosity they end up managers, politicians, congressional interns, people with MBAs…some become physicians. They’re the ones running the country, and writing the tax code, and acting like power-tripping silverbacks in the weekly status update progress report meeting regardless of the grades they made. The ones who were really good at it, yeah, they went to Harvard and ended up in politics or something, but they’re really no more interesting and no more studious than some cubicle-dwelling Senior Vice President for Information Technology.

25
Apr
10

Rank Hypocrites Burn Jet Fuel to Fly All the Way to Indonesia to Discuss How to Save the Environment

At what point do people start thinking “golly, it’s almost like these people are just using the excuse that they’re ‘combating climate change’ to justify flying around the world to go on vacation“? I mean, even if it really is necessary to have all these people gathered together in one place, couldn’t they have found somewhere a little less out-of-the-way than Bali?

25
Apr
10

Way to Go, Arizona

Cuz like, giving the police the power to arbitrarily ask people for their papers is totally consistent with American history and ideals.

24
Apr
10

Hope and Change: Obama Administration Less Transparent than Bush’s

The Huffington Post via the AP reports that the Obama administration is actually doing a worse job at keeping government transparent than the Bush administration:

WASHINGTON — One year into its promise of greater government transparency, the Obama administration is more often citing exceptions to the nation’s open records law to withhold federal records even as the number of requests for information declines, according to a review by The Associated Press of agency audits about the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the most frequently cited reasons for keeping records secret: one that Obama specifically told agencies to stop using so frequently. The Freedom of Information Act exception, known as the “deliberative process” exemption, lets the government withhold records that describe its decision-making behind the scenes.

Obama’s directive, memorialized in written instructions from the Justice Department, appears to have been widely ignored.

Major agencies cited the exemption at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year, according to annual reports filed by federal agencies. Obama was president for nine months in the 2009 period.

It’s almost like … almost like he made a bunch of promises he knew were unrealistic just to get elected. Could you imagine such a thing?

But seriously, if you’re actually surprised,  you’re probably a goober who believes things politicians say because you attach your ego and dreams to them. In almost every respect, the Obama administration’s performance and policies have been identical, if not worse, than the Bush administration’s when it comes to civil liberties and transparency.

As always, read the comment section on the HuffPo article if you want to despair for humanity.

22
Apr
10

Just More Proof That Lawyers Ruin Everything

Hot on the heels of a BBC article discussing the “rise, rise, and rise” of the now-storied phenomenon of “Downfall” parodies comes the sad news that the production company that owns the rights to “Downfall” (which is an excellent movie, by the way), is sending a squad of Einsatzgruppen lawyers to harass YouTube into removing the clips for breach of copyright.

With that in mind, check out the video at this link (sorry, WordPress didn’t want to embed it…).

[update]

Reason has more:

The legal merits of Constantin’s argument are clear: They do not exist. Downfall parodies take less than four minutes of a 156-minute film, and use them in a way that is unquestionably transformative. Maybe Moturk49 was somehow making a ton of money from his or her Xbox-related parody, but it seems unlikely. In any event, the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in the “Hairy Woman” lawsuit established that the commercial nature of a parody does not render it presumptively unfair, and that a sufficient parodic purpose offers protection against the charge of copying.

Not that that will matter. The issue is YouTube’s kneejerk takedowns. The site is free to do what it likes; nobody will bother going to court over something so ephemeral as a Hitler joke; and though YouTube is obviously the best and most popular forum for any video, it’s not like there’s some inalienable right to run your content there. Still, the use of immediate takedowns is a blunt instrument that YouTube and its owner Google will, I hope, learn to refine in the future. Meanwhile, brand-new Downfall parodies, including the inevitable Hitler-issues-DMCA-takedowns version, are available elsewhere.

Of course, Constantin films should be overjoyed at the success of the Downfall meme. I don’t know that it would even be possible to total up all the views on all the parodies out there, but it is conceivable that thanks to these parodies more Americans are aware of Downfall than of any non-English-language film ever made. And the company really fell into the schmaltz barrel by virtue of the fact that everybody refers to them as “Downfall parodies,” so if you’re intrigued enough to check out the (well worth seeing) original film, you know what to look for.

20
Apr
10

The Necessity of “Racism”

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article By James Taranto entitled “Why the Left Needs Racism,” which argues that the American left routinely invokes racism as a tactic for securing minority votes. Taranto writes that

The political left claims to love racial diversity, but it bitterly opposes such diversity on the political right. This is an obvious matter of political self-interest: Since 1964, blacks have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. If Republicans were able to attract black votes, the result would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party. Even in 2008, the Democrats’ best presidential year since ’64, if the black vote had been evenly split between the parties (and holding the nonblack vote constant), Barack Obama would have gotten about 48% of the vote and John McCain would be president.

To keep blacks voting Democratic, it is necessary for the party and its supporters to keep alive the idea that racism is prevalent in America and to portray the Republican Party (as well as independent challengers to the Democrats, such as the tea-party movement) as racist.

This line of reasoning is fine, as far as it goes. I would, however, criticize it for being overly functionalist; that is to say that Taranto argues that the spectre of “racism” is only invoked in order to scare minority voters into voting for Democrats. I don’t think he goes quite far enough. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I view spurious claims of racism (or indeed, as CJ has ably discussed, disingenuous attempts to link quite legitimate dissent to figures like the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh) as being akin to attempting to poison the epistemological well. By attempting to cement in the public mind the link between “racism” and “conservatism” (broadly defined), a brazen attempt at de-legitimating certain political voices a priori is being made.

Continue reading ‘The Necessity of “Racism”’