Can’t Say I Disagree

October 5, 2007

First of all, whenever I hear anything described as a heartless assault on our children, I tend to think it’s a good idea. I’m happy that the president’s willing to do something bad for the kids.

-William Kristol on SCHIP

The Global Warming Cult

October 5, 2007

So I’ve basically come around on global warming (GW) to the point where I’m convinced it’s a real, human-caused phenomenon, one that’s bad for the world overall and will particularly harm developing countries. What pushed me over the brink was reading Becker & Posner on the topic. Because I lack the resources (time, interest, academic background) to launch my own investigation, the best I can hope to do is rely on a dependable proxy, and there are few academics I respect as much as these two.

That said, I still think the general GW movement is a cult. There are a few reasons for this. First, the conviction with which adherents believe in the worst consequences of GW resembles religious fervor, sort of like anticipating the Rapture. Second, mention of possible positive effects of GW (e.g., increased agricultural output) is rejected outright and without question, just like blasphemy. Third, the association of the broader GW movement with leftist politics (like the living-wage movement) places GW in a broader framework of social beliefs, sort of like Jews overwhelmingly favoring progressive tax policies. Finally, so many environmentalists identifying as atheists suggests a hole that needs filling.

Last post recap

October 4, 2007

A friend suggests I was too snarky in my last post (about some Crimson opinion piece), and I agree. There were a few broader points I was trying (and failed) to communicate, so let me start over. First, phenomena (cultural, market-based, whatever) don’t just spring up from nowhere, they’re successful because they give a lot of people genuine pleasure. Large portions at restaurants are just like Britney Spears’ CDs; they reflect real preferences the businesses cater to. If this weren’t the case, restaurants (and Sony Music) would operate very differently. The author identifies this point in passing, but then chooses to ignore it. She shouldn’t, because this principle is basically the foundation for capitalism. Second, this obsession at Harvard with Western Europe is completely out of control. It’s virtually always coupled with an assumed shared disdain for fat, dumb, religious, conservative, unsophisticated Americans, which annoys the fuck out of me. Third, and most important, the author is recommending individual restaurants just unilaterally decrease portions without cutting prices to match, expecting that customers will thank them. This assumption that consumers are insensitive to significant price changes (yes, cutting portions constitutes a price change) is extremely privileged and naive.

Proof Harvard students are as dumb as students everywhere

October 3, 2007

To be found in this Crimson article. The author’s so impressed by tiny Spanish gelatos, she ignores the possibility large portions may reflect, like, actual consumer preferences. And yes, I say this as someone who could stand to lose a few pounds.

Doctor, heal thyself

October 3, 2007

From the nyt:

Many of us have known this scholar: The hair is well-streaked with gray, the chin has begun to sag, but still our tortured friend slaves away at a masterwork intended to change the course of civilization that everyone else just hopes will finally get a career under way.

We even have a name for this sometimes pitied species — the A.B.D. — All But Dissertation. But in academia these days, that person is less a subject of ridicule than of soul-searching about what can done to shorten the time, sometimes much of a lifetime, it takes for so many graduate students to, well, graduate. The Council of Graduate Schools, representing 480 universities in the United States and Canada, is halfway through a seven-year project to explore ways of speeding up the ordeal.

Clarence Thomas

October 3, 2007

And people call the New York Times liberal?  My favorite’s the third letter from the bottom.

Credit Scores

October 3, 2007

There are a lot of things I do that people find irresponsible. I drive without a license. I drink about 12 cans of coke a day.   I forget to register for classes.  I sleep on the floor.  98% of my meals are takeout.  I don’t vote.  (I also don’t pay taxes, at least not until recently, although that’s a different story.)

More than anything though, what elicits shock is that I don’t care about my credit score.  I bring this up because I received another $5 invoice today (at least the fifth, I’m sure) from my ophthalmologist’s billing service, this one threating to do horrible damage to my economic prospects if I don’t pay immediately.

Let me back up.  About 6 months ago I had a problem with my eye.  I went to the Ophthalmologist’s office.  Half an hour after my appointment time, I was called into his office.  The doctor looked at my eye, diagnosed my problem as a temporary one that would correct itself (it did), and was on his way.  From entering the room to leaving, the doctor spent roughly 3 minutes.  I was presented with a $155 bill.  $20 was co-pay, insurance kicked in $130, and I was left responsible for the remaining $5.

Fine.  I  don’t object to someone making good money even for doing essentially nothing, even if it’s the result of monopoly power (most applicants to med school don’t get in anywhere, you have to go to med school to practice medicine), price insulation (insurance), and government subsidies (health insurance is tax deductible).  But harassing me over $5 crosses the line of good taste.  If he pays me for my 30 minutes of wasted time, then fine, I’ll give him his $5. Maybe he can spend it on some Reader’s Digests for his waiting room.

Gattaca

October 3, 2007

I listened to James Watson (of Watson & Crick) on “On Point” this morning while driving to work. Watson’s apparently plugging a new book, one in which he describes potential applications of modern genetic research.

Watson generally came across well; he was self-deprecating and funny (how much of that is genuine versus how much an act, I have no idea), and spoke movingly about his son’s schizophrenia, and how such disorders could be screened for genetically. On the other hand, Watson was unprepared to answer the most obvious ‘dystopia’ questions; how might future discoveries shape our understandings of race, how might insurance companies take advantage against broader patient interests, how might parent-child relationships be impacted, how might the gap between rich and poor (nations and individuals) be affected, and similar.

Anyway, what struck me listening was the sense that we humans are on the verge of an incredibly powerful new technology, something comparable in importance to the internet or to nuclear weapons, something that will profoundly affect our normal, everyday lives, as well as shape our understanding of the human condition. And it’s a little frightening because I’m not sure we’re ready yet.

My intuitive sense is that people generally overestimate the progress technologies will make in the 1-5 year timeframe, while underestimating the progress that will be made in the 25-40 year timeframe. Certainly the world won’t be transformed overnight. But 25 years from now, I fully expect parents will be engineering their sons to be tall, dark and handsome, not to mention good at math.

You heard it here first: Gattaca by 2035, if not before.

The Five Books

October 3, 2007

I’ve been reading Robert Alter’s recent translation of the “Five Books of Moses,” i.e., The Torah. Alter’s work is pretty remarkable, really, in the way it preserves the beautiful poetic language (what Alter calls the “literary dignity”) of the story while remaining faithful, it seems, to the devices contained in the original. And while I’m certainly not the first to say this, the book is quite moving in parts.

Anyway, the translation is packed with footnotes, some fascinating, many less so. Most of the footnotes deal with philology and possible alternative translations of certain passages. The most interesting notes, however, are those which Alter uses to criticize the story’s central characters; Jacob is described as callous and manipulative, Joseph as vain and self-absorbed to the point of absurdity, Leah as an outright thief, and Rebeka as a liar. These remarks, most of which I agree with, are new to me, since I’ve only encountered the story before from a religious perspective (thanks 8 years of Hebrew school!), one which left the figures exempt from criticism. Interestingly, Alter frequently criticizes other contemporary scholars by name, which couldn’t have made him popular. (I guess that’s what tenure’s for.) For what it’s worth, Alter himself was strongly criticized for translating Abraham’s tool as a “cleaver” (as opposed to the more popular “knife”) in the sacrifice scene.

A few quick notes on the story’s actual contents (and no, don’t worry, I won’t mention the obvious “oh it’s extremely violent and barbaric and cruel and God isn’t a very sympathetic character and it’s full of anachronisms and women are subjugated and people own slaves,” all of which is true, of course.) First, and most remarkably, the text seems pretty clearly to imply the existence of other, lesser Gods, at least in Genesis, although the first commandment would seem to prohibit believing in, or at least worshiping, any but Abraham’s God. However, in all my life I have never, ever seen any discussion of this topic. Second, some form of afterworld, Sheol, which is suggested to literally lie below ground, is frequently referenced, particularly by Jacob. It’s not clear what the Sheol experience is like – whether it’s Hell or whether it’s generally neutral – but I never knew Judaism had anything like this feature. I always thought any scriptural basis for a Christian underground Hell must have come post-Christ. Third, several popular stories, most notably Abraham’s smashing of his father’s idols, are nowhere mentioned in the actual text of The Five Books.

One last point: the sprawling narrative, the terse passages, the suggested character histories, the extensive genealogies, the mystic features . . . more than anything else it reminds me of popular epic fantasy fiction, like “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” Of course, with the Bible we’re being asked to believe the narrative relates genuine, historical truth. In this light it’s not surprising the story’s so hugely popular.

1 room, no view

October 2, 2007

Apparently artists have been living in the Providence Mall for the past several years.  Their apartment sounds nicer than mine.