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20
Dec
11

No More Fun Of Any Kind!

A message from the office of John Boehner:

House set to raise taxes on the middle class in January.

Suck on that during your “Christmas” with your “presents” and “happiness,” Poors!

20
Dec
11

A Nation of Rosalind Franklins, Rather Than Ben

Another quick note on our educated populace. I recently watched someone try to learn physics on his own. He was assiduous about the learning, and–being availed any number of written, online, and hands-on resources–one would think he quickly became an expert. And yet, after 4 years of trying, he still has a serious misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the science. Is it because he’s unteachable? No. Is it because physics is too difficult to comprehend, even at its basest level? No. Why, then, could he fail to learn it after trying so hard?

What I have noticed in my (admittedly paltry)Look, Ma, lots of hands! year-ish of teaching here in the States is that more and more people have a serious difficulty synthesizing information. While the problem my students have in communicating a hypothesis effectively is understandable (as is their lack of being able to formulate good game plans in general), what I find interesting is their seeming lack of ability to analyze their own results. For example, say a student indirectly measures the height of a table by seeing how long a pencil takes to fall off of it. If one measurement says the table is 4 feet tall, and another says it’s 8, they have a very difficult time understanding what that data means. In truth, they tend to just not think about it. They report it, then move on.

This is a problem I’ve seen reflected in myriad instances in the country. Immediate utility, rather than broad applicability, is what has increasingly become of the focus of a populace ever more terrified and bewildered by the idea of thinking critically about subjects. It seems that the emphasis in everyday problem-solving has become immediate gratification. Maybe it’s the result of the Sesame Street generation growing up. Maybe the further infantilization of the Facebook crowd is adding to it. I tend to think, however, that the problem is one that has historically plagued anyone who is obsessed with linear thought.

Linear thought processes are great. They can help keep ideas organized, can keep ideas focused, and can keep blogs on-track. They are not, however, so great at seeing the forest for the forest. Take the titular case of Rosalind Franklin, for example. While her photograph of DNA’s structure may have been the first, her inability to see it for what it was led to her getting scooped by James Watson on her own data.

Our country has always purported to encourage the Ben Franklins amongst us to greatness. Those who can understand that the electricity coming out of the bulb might be the same as the luminescence visible during a thunderstorm are supposed to always find a home here. More and more, though, this kind of thinking is being seen as suspect and, worse yet, European.At least it's still sunny in December, suckers!

Nowhere is the lack of understanding the causation of the big picture from the little picture more evident (and evidently disastrous) than in California.

California boasts a “direct democracy.” In other words, voters decide on policy. It sounds great, but it’s actually a horrible idea given the lack of ability of the statewide electorate to understand and extrapolate from data. Want better parks? Sure. Better schools? Absolutely. More cops and firemen on the streets? You bet! Want to pay more taxes? No way! And that, in a nutshell, is how a state with a huge economy can go bankrupt.

The basic understanding of how the little picture relates to the big picture is part of what makes a science like physics fun to teach. Look at the pencil fall off the table. That’s also what holds our universe together (and on, and on). It’s also what makes nations work. Looking at the data of our society right now, we can derive the following: we are not recovering from an almost-depression as quickly as we should; we are quickly becoming a nation of the chronically un-and-under-employed; we are coexisting with other first-world markets that are equally hurting; we are trying to mitigate terrorist threats from multiple countries of origin; and we are paying historically little in taxes. After reading this list of problems the next president will need to address, one can easily derive that the next president must be:
1. Highly proactive and persuasive to a bipartisan group
2. A master diplomat
3. Tough-minded and steady
Nate Silver’s work has shown as much. Specifically, it said that, if the economy continues to recover slowly, the GOP candidate is a shoe-in against Obama. Just so long as he’s neither an extremist nor has taken crazily extreme positions.

Here are the GOP candidates:

Nuff said.

20
Dec
11

Commodification to Any Degree

So it’s been a loooong time since I added something. The quick synopses of events leading to now: moved back to the States (more on that later), am teaching in a private school, and had another kid. Even though I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I’m making time now to update. Why? This:

James Franco got a D in his acting class, then promptly (allegedly) bitched about it until NYU canned the offending professor.

As I mentioned, I’m currently teaching at a private institution, so this hits very close to home. After all, I’m currently teaching a kid who, upon having plagiarized every single assignment he’s handed in for the semester, tried to get me canned for only having inflated his grade to a B+. To my school’s credit, they did read me the riot act, but refused to fire me. Still, these two instances point to a problem in the educational system in general. Namely, if private schools are our kids best option, what does that say about the next generation?

We all know public schools need work. We all know that they’re mismanaged, inefficient, and sometimes staffed by people less-than-qualified to be there. Fine. Private schools, then, seem like a better option for a lot of families worried about their children’s future. Yes, they’re usually staffed by impressive people (or, at least, people with more alphabet soup after their names). Yes, they offer highly specialized classes. Yes, their teacher-to-student ratio is largely one more conducive to higher standards of learning.

However.

Like, I'm totally an expert in Keyensian theory!Private schools also experience something that public schools don’t: accountability to their
stockholders. And, in this shitty economy, that can be a driving force in even the best-intentioned educational institution. Amazingly enough, this increased accountability on the part of the administration of any private school is then leading to a marked decrease in accountability for the students there. The message eventually becomes clear: complain loudly and violently enough, and any student can receive any degree, so long as their tuition check clears.

This is not to say that privatization always leads to inferior products (FedEx always being a prime example), but I am saying that it tends to breed a lack of accountability endemic to private institutions. Yes, the heads of any company will always be held accountable. As will the employees of the private company. The ones who won’t are the stockholders.

In a publicly-held institution, the ideal situation is that everyone is accountable to each other. If the local water company fails, they will be held accountable by the tax-paying population. And, that tax-paying population will also be accountable for their own decision (i.e. they will live with disease-infested water, or without enough). That is precisely why certain companies are made public: their success serves the public interest in such an inextricable way that the public will have no choice but to support the genuine success of said institution, regardless of price.

This is also still the best argument for public schooling. A nation can only be as strong as its best and brightest, after all. Likewise, a nation can only benefit from seeing an increase in the numbers (and abilities) of its population. It isn’t as though we haven’t experienced this first-hand lately. We’re all currently enmeshed in the consequences of living under the leadership of someone who bought his education, someone who was never held accountable, someone who still has no real grasp of what the repercussions are of his actions. And yet the populace, still reeling from the effects of the governance of said incurious boob, has seen fit to glorify such a motley crew of inglorious bastards as has ever been witnessed by an electorate. More worrisome yet is that said inglorious bastards aren’t polling at 5%. They are being supported by a population too poorly educated to remember what happened the last time they chose someone poorly educated or trained.

So it goes. And so it will continue to go so long as we make public education a talking point before election, yet the visible results of an education anathema to an electorate too insecure about their own bad education to be outraged by it. We also need to remember that what made this country great once were revolutionary ideas that were coupled with courage behind said convictions; it was not, as some might have you think, made great by mindless tough guys who came over here to flex only their southernmost muscle. And what makes this country a shameful joke on the world economy is that we have let the uneducated feel vindicated rather than angry, empowered by their lack of knowledge rather than entitled to it.

21
Oct
09

Machismo: Lost In Translation

Given its history and reputation as a fiery, imperial, and “Inquisitive” culture, I’ve been struck recently by Spain’s seeming disavowal of a word their language coined: Machismo. While used as a euphemism in many parts of the States for men who yearn to be toe-kickin’ John Wayne-a-bees, Spain translates it literally as “chauvinism,” and treats it as such.

I was first struck by this notion at the Gay Pride Parade I went to here in Madrid, at which there were many signs reading, “Homophobia = Machismo.” The idea seemed to be that machismo is something so looked down upon as antiquated, cruel, and ill-informed (to say the least) that it is mostly now used as a warning, as something so awful and ignorant that you would not want any association with it. The further fact that those signs constituted the first time I had seen/heard/read the word “machismo” in 2 and a half years living here also struck me as odd. After all, the image of the “Macho Man”–as literal Marlboro-man-type, or as ironically flamboyant Village Person–seems to me to be omnipresent across the pond. On the contrary, after being on the lookout, the only other context in which I’ve seen the word used is equating macho men to chronically abusive spouses.

But it doesn’t just end there. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a man at the store wearing a translated version of the biker t-shirt that reads “If You Can Read This…The BITCH Fell Off.” And, while the shirt was definitely recognizable in its design and basic verbiage, the actual message on the back (translated directly back from Spanish) is “If You Can Read This…My FIANCEE/GIRLFRIEND Has Fallen From The Motorcycle.” Comically extraneous prepositional phrases aside, the shirt’s translation to Spanish meant that it necessarily had to lose all of its anger and nonchalance about a violent act occurring to someone about whom the wearer is supposed to care. I can just imagine the first Spaniard reading the American version of the shirt: “Oh ho HO, that poor guy! He’s going to be so worried when he finds out she’s not there! What a useful shirt to let us know to alert him!”

I was just reminded of this whole thing while looking for a movie to watch. I clicked on the “Men Who Hate Women” link, only to find out it’s the movie based on Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous novel of the same name. At least, its English name is Men Who Hate Women. Its Spanish title (again, translated back) is The Men Who Did Not Love Women. The difference is not only that hate is never mentioned, but that the verb used for the “not love” part of the title is “amar,” the deeper form of the traditional verb “querer,” which also means “to love.” The implication is that the men described in the book did not romantically, truly, deeply love women, as opposed to the English title, which implies that the men in the book harbor darkly violent distaste for women.

And so it occurs to me that there might be something to what I always called, in my younger days, “politically correct horsewallop.” What I see here is something I also remember thinking in the South: Language is power. Specifically, the type of language viewed as community-approved or acceptable sets the tone for the society, and the implications can indeed be palpable. Pulling back on said language, reserving it only for extreme cases, or just outright banning it, then, might not be such a bad thing.


To cite an example from my time below the Mason-Dixon, one day I was driving with one of my neighbors (a female microbiologist) and her niece, returning her niece back to Lafayette (the biggest little city in Cajun Country, for those not in the know). We both started teasing the 16-year-old girl about having a secret crush on one of her school’s football players, a boy who happened to be black. She slumped in her seat and grumbled, “Please. I ain’t gonna have no niglets running ’round my house.” My neighbor saw me blanch and catch my breath, and virtually ran her truck off the road so she could grab her niece and say to her what all Southerners sometimes need said to them:

“If you ever want to get out of a shithole town and be around smart, good people, you can’t talk like that. Any educated people you’re going to meet won’t like it, and they won’t like you.”

That is to say, while your average Connecticut housewife may indeed clutch her purse more closely when she sees any young minority in baggy pants walking by her, betraying some unspoken bigotry in her soul, she won’t admit that she does so; the mere fact that she knows that society frowns on it makes her disapprove of her own thoughts. It is less a case of using sunshine as a disinfectant, and more a case of constructing a polite society. Like not starting food fights in fancy restaurants (even though it’s secretly kind of fun), we don’t do it because we’re not fucking animals.

Why the sudden harsh tone? Taking the argument about machismo, for example, and its lack of perceived hilarity in Spain, let’s look at some statistics. The first 100 days in 2007, 15 women died in Spain as a result of domestic violence. The public outcry was enormous, even though the number dropped (by 6) from the previous year. Protest rallies were organized and held, and the anti-machismo posters abounded. For comparison’s sake, citing a 2005 study, at least 3 women die every day in the United States at the hand of a current or ex-partner. So, in that same period of time in 2007, barring some sudden precipitous drop in cases, 300 women died in the United States. To be fair, let’s adjust the number to show the disparity in population (Spain’s population is roughly 13% that of the United States), and the number come out to 40, over double Spain’s “unacceptable” number.

Maybe it’s all just smoke and mirrors, or maybe it’s just because Spanish men are more preoccupied with Real Madrid vs. Real Betis to save up any violent passions for their spouses, but it seems to me to be worth noting that Machismo may need to stop being funny. Cause maybe it’s already not.

30
Sep
09

Public Option Faces Death Panel, With Expected Results

And the Douchebag of the Year Award goes to...

Man, Blue Dog Democrats just can’t get enough killing into their day! First, it was Rockefeller’s “more robust” public option, then Schumer’s “less robust but perfectly fine” public option. Little do they know that Rockefeller has another one lying in wait, so they won’t have to pick up kittens on the way home to satisfy their bloodlust.

Seriously, it’s ridiculous that they voted down the public option yesterday, but we all expected it, no? And, in true ridiculous Washington fashion, the vote means nothing really for the ultimate fate of the public option. Much like a government-mandated death panel would likely entail massive bureaucracy, there are still myriad ways to include this thing (let’s call it “Grandma”) in the final bill before we libtards start freaking out for realz.

Mr. Rockefeller has also proposed another amendment, designed to look like the version of a public option included in legislation under consideration in the House. That proposal would base payment rates on Medicare for three years, but would pay a premium of 5 percent above Medicare rates for providers that also accept Medicare. (Not all health care providers accept the government insurance.)

For right now, let’s drop health care and talk education, though. As in, there’s a serious lack of it in the U.S., even in the most unlikely places. Take that woman who refused to deploy to Iraq, since she didn’t want to do so for some Indonesian Muslim-turned-Welfare-thug or whatever: she’s a doctor. Really! Like, if you went into a hospital with a gaping head wound, she might be deployed to fix it, as long as you had your long-form birth certificate.

Anyway, and here’s an elected official speaking:

“There’s a lot to like about a public option,” [Max] Baucus said, but he asserted that the idea could not get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor.

So, let’s get this straight: Blue Dogs won’t vote for a public option, even though they like it, because it won’t pass because they won’t vote for a public option. Genius!

Now let’s get this guy over to Afghanistan! He can tell the public that we’re there to help democracy by putting a guy who steals elections in power. Everyone* wins!

*Except everyone.

29
Sep
09

Michele Bachmann’s Milk

Earlier in the month, Nancy Pelosi made headlines by showing actual emotion, as she spoke of her memories of the murders of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco in 1978. What should have made people sit up and take notice, however, was not the Nancy Pelosi almost cried on camera; it was that she said anything about those incidents at all.

Of the journalists covering the press conference, only Rachel Maddow mentioned what only we Bay Area natives know: No one, but no one, talks about those murders. Sometimes, in hushed terms, you might hear a parent explain what is meant by “The Twinkie Defense,” or you might see a teacher gently explaining to their students why the metal detector is so important in City Hall. In general, though, the violence of that day, the riots that ensued after the bullshit verdict was announced, and the deep ripping apart of the heart of a city previously defined by its love of love…they’re just not spoken of in public. The scars are too deep, and the underlying wounds too fresh, to cheapen them by crass allusions or casual references.

So, much as the Republican leadership would probably like to dismiss Pelosi’s near-tears as Hillary-esque cynical pandering, I can vouch that they’re not. Bay Area natives can back me up: If you want to take the cynical pandering route, there are, tragically, plenty of other political assassinations to reference. Not Harvey Milk. Not Mayor Moscone. Not the Bay-Arean boogie man himself, Dan White.

There’s another reason politicians never invoke the murders of November, 1978, and it’s why the Republicans should have noticed. Pelosi referenced a horrific act of violence which was, perhaps most notably, not perpetrated by some lone wingnut, but rather by an insider, another politician, who had lost his sense of reason along with the election. By referencing Dan White’s loss of any sense of right and wrong, and the loss of lives that derived therefrom, she was sending a message to the Joe Wilsons and Michele Bachmanns of the opposition: Walk it back now, before it eats you alive.

Joe Wilson’s breach of decorum was part of the impetus for the remark, I’m sure, since it signified something more than someone gabbing when he shouldn’t have; it signified someone whose relegation to the margins of the political system has pushed them past the point of reasoned debate and into a realm of pure emotion, where anger gives the excludee’s mind permission to realize whatever fantasy they have of taking the system down. The reason for the public chiding of Wilson on the House floor, then, should act as a reminder to everyone there: The business of politics, while it may have personal ramifications, is not personal, and cannot be allowed to get personal without losing touch with healthy and rational debate, the cornerstone of any democracy.

I bring this up now, and mention Michele Bachmann along with it, because she too now has a reason to walk her rhetoric back. The murder of Bill Sparkman has to weight heavy on her head, and I mean that not in the sense that I think she has the conscience and reason to assume guilt for it. I mean that the rest of her colleagues need to make her feel the blood on her hands. She needs to rethink making comments about Obama trying to use Census data for putting people into concentration camps. What was once simply funny-through-its-idiocy chatter has now turned decidedly unfunny. It has a body count. Someone is an orphan directly because of it. His name is Josh.  He deserved better.

For anyone not familiar with the Sparkman murder, here are the facts:

Census worker Bill Sparkman was found dead earlier this month, he was naked and gagged, with duct tape over his eyes. Duct tape also bound Sparkman’s hands and feet…The word “Fed” was written on Sparkman’s chest, setting off speculation last week that the Census worker and part-time schoolteacher was killed in an act of anti-government sentiment.

Sources also told the AP that Sparkman’s Census Bureau ID was found taped to his head and shoulder area — a detail which may add to that speculation.

Bachmann has, so far, refused to answer questions about Sparkman’s murder, and has taken back up her imaginary cause of anti-one-world-currency (???), which I take to mean two things: first, she feels too guilty about the murder to comment on it; second, she’s going to go back to talk of imaginary-but-wonky threats, in the hopes the body count may stay low.

Sparkman’s tortured corpse, however, calls on her to do more. So do the people who live in poor, secluded areas in the country, people who are already underrepresented and whose hometowns are already under-resourced, people the Government may never know need help because Census workers may be too afraid now to tell them so. Every family in a rural area who might like better infrastructure, more representation in Washington, or maybe their own Post Office, demand this of Ms. Bachmann.

And now, thanks to the harsh invectives being so cavalierly thrown about by Ms. Bachmann and her ilk (yes, I’m leaving out Glenn Beck on purpose here, since he is not, in any way, expected to act as an authority figure to anyone), people think it’s funny to poll Facebook users to see if they think Obama should be killed.

That’s it. Enough.

Enough irresponsibly inflammatory comments. Enough making things up out of whole-cloth, things meant to terrify and incite the populous, things that lead to acts of violence. Enough guns at political rallies. Enough single fathers bound naked and hanged, just for doing their job.

25
Sep
09

Cheap Drugs Now! Cheap Drugs Always!

To continue my rant about what health care reform is vis a vis my experiences here with universal health care, let’s move on to a prescient (and pressing) topic: Drugs. Obama flip-flopped a while ago on drug cost reform, which is the most retarded compromise he’s made yet. Put your Twitter guns away, Sarah. With all due respect to Trig Palin, the most likeable of that whole damned family, I am using “retarded” in the literal sense, meaning that it is slowing progress.

Let me explain. I realized lately that, of all the things that universal health care has meant for me here, maybe the most concrete and loveable is the drug situation. Specifically, I have a baby who just loves to get earaches. Really. Like, 10 a year. As such, I have a house constantly full of two things: Amoxycillin and prescription-strength Ibuprofen (meant for babies with perforated eardrums). In an attempt to curb the constant earaches, our pediatrician recently put her on a daily does of the antibiotics, a course of treatment meant to last for 3 months, which means buying at least 4 bottles of the stuff. Here’s why I say I love this part of universal health care the most:

2 bottles of Amoxycillin + 1 huge bottle of baby Ibuprofen = less than 2 euros.

That’s right. LESS than 2 bucks.

Finding a way to make that sort of thing unpalatable to the masses would be tough for even the most skilled government-hater. Unless, of course, they bring up that most hated of all words: tax. Time for more math, you say?

My monthly salary, before taxes and social security: about 2200.
My take-home: A little more than 1900.

That’s right. I pay just around 13% for taxes and social security. Included in that is health care, education through college in any EU university for all of my kids, and a nice cushy retirement fund. Oh, and, most pressing for me, is the unemployment benefits, which amount to 70% of your salary for the first 4 months.

Now, granted, Spain is not someplace you move to to get rich. Or someplace you stay to get rich. But, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find people who are not middle class. And harder-pressed yet to find people who don’t go to the doctor if so much as their nose itches.

Better yet, they can afford the treatment. And who doesn’t love cheap drugs?




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