Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sometimes I Think Thomas Sowell Is Just Trolling Us

Have you ever done one of those creative writing exercises in which you’re giving a group of wildly disparate concepts and told that your job is to tie them together? It’s sort of like that “Chopped” cooking show where the chefs have to make up dishes with mismatched ingredients, only instead of marshmallows, kale, and foie gras, you have to make up a story that somehow combines “the battle of Waterloo,” “a Swingline stapler,” and “sentient tapeworms.” It’s a fun exercise, but you probably don’t want to take it too seriously.

Reading the editorials on Townhall.com reminds me of my creative writing classes. The two main differences are: The range of topics will always include “liberals are bad” and “the market is good” plus one or two other items, and the both the writers and readers take these articles very seriously indeed despite that fact that it’s a square peg/round hole exercise.

One of my favorite practitioners of this sort of writing is the imitable Thomas Sowell. When last we visited him, he was trying to demonstrate that blame for the government shutdown should be laid at the feet of the Democrats. It wasn’t even close to true, of course, but that didn’t stop Sowell from stepping up to the plate and trying to prove it. He struck out, as you might expect, but he did take some good cuts.

Recently, he published a piece with the highly provocative title “The Left Versus Minorities.” Wow!  The left are engaged n battle against minorities? That would be a pretty big switch from conventional wisdom, but ok, I’ll took a gander to see what he had to say. Fun, right?

Honestly, it’s wasn’t as much fun as I was hoping . The first paragraph gives it away. He claims that the left’s supposed concern for minorities is a fraud because a couple of school districts have cut funding for charter schools. His reasoning is that some (but not all) charter schools have had success in teaching minority students, ergo if you cut funding for charter schools, you don’t really care about minorities.

If you want to, you can pick out several obvious formal fallacies in this proposition, but I think the key problem with his argument is that “supporting all charter schools” and “caring about minorities” are not the same thing, and if they’re not the same thing, then his proposition doesn’t hold water. That doesn’t stop him from plowing forward with some genuinely bizarre statements:

Not all charter schools are successful, of course, but the ones that are completely undermine the excuses for failure in the public school system as a whole.

Wait, what? What are the “excuses for failure” that are undermined by the existence of a single, successful charter school? The lack of context for this statement (and there is none offered in the original) lowers it from “logical or factual error” to “meaningless nonsense.” You can’t evaluate a claim this vague and ill-formed any more than you can a statement like “horse water silica drive moon!”

Sowell engages in a little mind-reading in stating that a primary reason why politicians oppose charter schools is that these politicians are beholden to teachers’ unions*, and apparently, these politicians like teachers more than minorities. Of course, that’s a false dilemma. You can be pro-teacher and pro-minority and, in fact, I think I’d argue that there’s a great deal of overlap there.  The bottom line, for me, is that Sowell is ascribing motivations to people who oppose his view that can’t be validated. If we were assholes, we cold play that game and suggest that people who support charter schools really just want to make money and if the kids get an education, great, but that’s not job one. That would be rude, though, so I won’t do it.

Since that previous paragraph was so weak, I’ll finish with the best part: Sowell cites the attempts to revoke the charter of the American Indian Model Schools in Oakland as an example of ideology trumping the educational needs of minority students. The school has, in fact, achieved terrific results. So why did the school board vote to revoke the charter? Sowell’s answer:

Why? The excuse given was that there had been suspicious financial dealings by the former — repeat, former — head of the institution. If this was the real reason, then all they had to do was indict the former head and let a court decide if he was guilty or innocent.

Gee, that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not exactly the whole story. The school operated under principal and chief executive Ben Chavis, who spent $3.8 million of the school’s money at businesses owned by…Ben Chavis. If that sounds like a fairly gross conflict of interest, you’re in the same boat as the state auditors. Of course, Chavis was fired…aw, who am I kidding, Chavis left on his own terms before anyone found out about this. The auditors found that the school’s governing board had been negligent in their oversight duties and were wholly ineffective at doing anything beyond letting Chavis do whatever he wanted. That same board is still in place today. The fact that none of the board have been replaced was the primary reason for the revocation of the school’s charter. It’s still controversial because the school has done a good job teaching. Things are seldom completely black and white, and the fate of the school is still very much being contested.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from reading Sowell’s piece. He has to fit the pieces together, whether they fit or not. As to whether he was just being “misleading,” or if he somehow didn’t know anything about the subject he was writing about, or whether he was flat-out lying, well, I can’t say for certain. What I can say, though, is that once again, Sowell has gamely tried to prove something that simply is not true, and predictably, failed.

 

 

 

 

*  One of the key features of charter schools is that, as for-profit entities, they tend not to offer competitive compensation to their non-union teachers.Sowell regards this as a feature and not a bug, a conclusion with which I take serious issue. This Rand study is one of many that took a look at how teacher compensation related to student achievement. Before you say “richer districts have many other factors that favor their students,” please read the study in detail. This is a reasonably thorough study and they control for these kinds of variables. They key takeaway is:

“Districts with higher salaries, controlling for other factors, appeared to have significantly higher test scores in both reading and mathematics.”

 

 

 

 

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28/03/2014 · 7:14 pm

And then there’s this guy…

Yesterday’s post concerned itself with people in privileged positions who think that, when other people acquire rights, it somehow diminishes their own rights. There are countless examples, but in my none-too-humble opinion, the most odious are the men who try to force their beliefs on women’s bodies and then act like their rights are being trampled when you call them on their bullshit.

That’s not exactly what Alaska state senator Pete Kelly is up to. He hasn’t played the victim yet. But, he’s certainly got the whole “trampling” thing down”

“Birth control is for people who don’t necessary want to act responsibly.”

Of course, by “people,” he means “women.”

“No one is prohibited from having birth control because of economic reasons. Women can buy condoms for the cost of a can of pop and get the pill for the price of four to five lattes each month.”

Why is he even talking about this? Because he’s pushing for state funds to put pregnancy tests in bars so women can see if they’re pregnant when they’re out drinking. No. Really. Read the article if you don’t believe me. Getting pregnant without knowing it and going to bars to find out is responsible, but taking precautions to prevent an unwanted pregnancy is irresponsible.

The subtext here, since he didn’t come out and say it, is that women should not have sex unless they want to get pregnant.

Honestly, I’d rather deal with goofy white supremacists than assholes like Pete Kelly. We can openly mock the guys in the white sheets all day long, but for some reason, the Pete Kellys of the world keep getting elected. Until we, as a society, are openly pointing fingers and laughing at Pete Kelly’s ideas, until he and his ilk become figures of mockery, we haven’t really nailed down this “equality” thing, have we?

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You’re confusing “rights” with “privilege” again

I know this is a little late, but I wanted to let it percolate before commenting. I’m sure you saw these signs all over the web and TV for about 15 minutes last week:

“Diversity = White Genocide”

The “movement” (was it a march, or a protest, or a…?) was a bit of a dud as even people who might sympathize with the sentiment behind the movement were put off by the artless and, frankly, stupid way in which it was presented. It feels like punching a 90% straw man to take issue with this…whatever it was…so let’s broaden the scope a little.  There are a disturbing number of white people who believe that, if other races get the same rights that they have, then that’s discrimination against whites. There are whites who feel they are the most-discriminated against group in the U.S. of A. I don’t think any of this is news. There are also people who believe that, by including other holidays in your seasonal well-wishing, you are waging a war against Christmas.  There are people who believe that allowing some people to marry devalues their own marriage.  There are people who claim that giving amnesty to illegal aliens is a slap in the face to people who went through the proper channels.

If what you have is devalued or threatened by someone else getting it, you’re not talking a “right”, you’re talking about a privilege. I get it. You only want it if they can’t have it. Once they have it, it’s not shiny and special anymore. It’s fun to feel special. But please, be aware of the fact that what you’re complaining about has literally nothing to do with you. If Bob and Doug get married, that doesn’t impact your marriage in any way. You’re still married. Including other holidays doesn’t change denigrate Christmas, it just make other people feel less left out.

Personally, I’m not offended is someone says “Merry Christmas” to me. I am offended if someone says “Happy Holidays” and someone else responds with “Don’t you mean Merry Christmas?!?” (and yes, I have heard that). I’m not offended when someone is proud of the fact that they navigated the Byzantine U.S. Immigrations laws to become a lawful citizen, but I’m offended when they’re pissed that someone else didn’t have to work as hard as they did. Be happy for them. Why do you wish misery on someone else just because you had to do it? If the only way you can feel good about what you’re doing is to leave other people out of it, maybe it’s time to rethink your values, eh?

 

 

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Required Reading

The one thing I wish I’d been taught in high school, above everything else, is critical thinking. Entering college, I lacked a good many skills I feel I should have had, but the most embarrassing was the skill set to tell a good argument form a bad one. My bullshit detector was very, very poorly calibrated. I wasn’t alone, and my ethics professor exploited this mercilessly to his apparently endless amusement.

A course in formal logic is probably too much to expect of high schools. Fortunately, there’s another option. Ali Almossawi has written a delightful book entitled An illustrated book of Bad Arguments. It’s a marvelously accessible catalog of logical fallacies complete with easily-understood examples.

The book can be read online and I strongly urge you to do so and share it if you like it. The ability to tell truth from crap isn’t nearly as ingrained as we’d like to believe and books like this are a terrific tool to hone our skills.

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A Hearty Thank You

I’ve had little occasion to deal with my domain registrar, which is a good thing. However, when I have needed to contact Heart Internet, they’ve been lovely to deal with. They’re professional, friendly, and when I’ve needed to use the “live chat” to ask a question, their employees have been uniformly well-trained and knowledgeable. I’ve been very happy with them and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone looking for a registrar.

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The Fountain

Last week, I finally sat down and watched Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. I’m not sure if anything I write about it will constitute a spoiler, but if you’re strongly anti-spoiler, you haven’t seen this film, and you are planning to do so, then by all means, stop reading. I know it’s a little weird to be writing about an eight year old film like this, but it was the first time I’ve seen it and I need to unpack some things while I’m trying to work out exactly what it was I saw.

If you’re still with me, then I’m assuming we can talk about The Fountain.

Let me start by saying that I’m not at all sure how “good” this film was. I was thoroughly entertained, it’s obviously stuck in my brain, but there were some maddeningly jarring bits that didn’t seem to work. Mind you, I had the same reaction to Brazil the first couple of times I saw it until I got my head around the ending. It’s entirely possible that it’s not working because I’m not getting it.

That said, the film isn’t nearly as obtuse as some critics make it out to be. Yes, there are three sort-of parallel stories, but I found the way in which they were pieced together enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the film. Taken out of the context of the film, the nature of the three stories is not at all difficult to understand. It can be a little tricky to follow while you’re watching it, but again, that only enhances your engagement in what’s on the screen.

I saw that Kate Blanchett and Brad Pitt were originally cast as the leads, and I cannot tell you how relieved I am that Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman wound up with those roles. Weisz’ enigmatic smile is perfect for a woman who is on the cusp and just waiting for her lover to figure it out for himself.  She was an inspired choice, but then again, so was Jackman. His portrayal of single-minded determination even when he’s going down the wrong road is convincing and heartbreaking at the same time.

So, yeah, we’ve talked about The Fountain, but not about what The Fountain is about. It’s a movie that’s about death, and about how we look at death, and about how grow. That’s a heavy, heavy load for a film and it speaks incredibly well of Aronofsky that he was able to make what amounts to a science fiction film about points of view and make it work. The penultimate sequence feels inspired by 2001 and is every bit as visually overwhelming, but I’m it’s also the part I’m not sure about. However, it resolves to a pitch-perfect ending. I love a proper ending (as opposed to a happy one). The movie ended the way it needed to end, which was beautiful, a little sad, and absolutely perfect.

 

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Filed under Film, Personal, Philosophy

Snowden@SxSW

Cory Doctorow wrote a useful recap of Edward Snowden’s virtual appearance in Austin, Texas, USA yesterday. For me, one of the best talking points to come out of it is: By crippling encryption standards and insisting on back doors in all software, the NSA has not merely made it possible for the U.S. government to spy on you; they’ve made it easy for anyone to spy on your and/or steal from you.

Finding vulnerabilities in systems and exploiting them without telling the parties involved is some seriously black hit shit. Insisting that those vulnerabilities be built in to systems? We need a new hat color for the NSA spooks. Even if you think the U.S. government should have the ability and right to go through every electronic message sent in the world, does that mean they should knowingly leave the door open for everyone else?

This isn’t Snowden being a “hero.” Please don’t try to make it about him. Regardless of what you think of him personally, I think the important thing is that he exposed massive, systemic wrongdoing and flat-out lawbreaking on the part of the U.S. government against its own citizens. Making it about Snowden just gives cover to the people who were exposed as corrupt, incompetent, or lazy by the material Snowden released.

 

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Who Nuts The Nutters?

(I can’t find a good Latin translation in the fashion of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?“)

Ah, the early days of the internet, back when I thought it would be a thing that brought people of differing viewpoints together and fostered understanding and open dialog. “Naive” isn’t the word for it. I was about as wrong as a human being can be. Whereas the average nutter might be isolated in their real-world community, or have a thin thread of communication over AM radio and Infowars with others of their ilk, the internet allows them to get together in one place and race to see who can be the most radical.

If you think I’m overstating it, check out The Least Credible Site On the Internet*: Free Republic. This is what happens when a group of like-thinking individuals get together, carefully prune out sources of information that disagree with the things that they all agree are true, and decide that anyone who isn’t 100% with them isn’t with them at all: You get a site where the members call Texas Senator John Cornyn a “liberal.

If you read the comments, you’ll see that they dismiss Factcheck.Org out of hand as a liberal organization. That’s the bit I want to concentrate on: The outright paranoia that any attempt to actually determine truth that doesn’t agree with them is necessarily not only wrong, but wrong due to bias against the Real Americans of Free Republic. It’s a conspiracy!

Here’s today’s wonderful example: Recently, the nutters excavated the long-debunked idea that Elena Kagan was appointed to the Supreme Court as a quid pro quo for defending Obama against suits that challenged his citizenship, and they’re saying that the bastion of liberalism, Snopes, is wrong to call the claim false. Got it? Snopes says that it’s false that Kagan represented Obama against these suits, the Freepers are saying that Snopes is lying and that they’re secret liberals.

Here’s the article on the “No Compromise” web ring: Snopes NO MORE The Self-proclaimed of Urban Legend has been debunked.

Woo-ee! That looks pretty bad, huh? A bunch of Supreme Court documents with the names “Elena Kagan” and “Barack Obama” on them. How did the comrades at Snopes spin that to make it sound like Kagan hadn’t been defending Obama against citizenship suits?

Well, here’s the article on Snopes. Kaganroo Court.

So…wait. Everything that the nutters cite as evidence is specifically addressed on Snopes and it’s total crap. The “No Compromise” writer apparently has a “No Reading Comprehension” web ring as well, because it’s like he didn’t even read the article. He took all of the evidence that Snopes looked at and simply decided it meant something very different than what it said.  Snopes even went to the trouble to debunk the debunkers, which is really further than they needed to go based on the facts of the issue.

It’s like the old Clinton death list all over again. Stupid misinformation keeps getting recycled and reposted as though there are new facts to consider. It’s not only insultingly dumb, it’s really lazy (and don’t get me started on the copious spelling errors). It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Sadly, it doesn’t even serve any real purpose for the Freepers. They already believe what they believe, so new facts-that-ain’t-exactly-true aren’t going to move the needle.

Dear Freepers, please do us all a favor: Please just say “I believe what I believe and the facts be damned.” It would save all of us a lot of time.

* As determined by me. YMMV.

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I Rose In San Antone

Alrighty then…last week, I mentioned that I wanted to write about a little weekend junket, but the #$%@#$^ TPP got me sidetracked. My dander was up, and I hate to waste a good, upright dander, but let’s get back to the matter at hand: San Antonio, Texas is a great city to visit. In fact, it’s probably the best city in Texas to visit (sorry Austin).

Let me dial that back a little: San Antonio has the best downtown for visitors of all of Texas’ large cities. In fact, it has one of the best downtowns I’ve ever visited. It’s an inviting place, it’s walkable, the public transit is useful, and, well, let’s not beat around the bush: there’s the riverwalk. If you’re not familiar with San Antonio’s riverwalk, let me bring you up to speed. The San Antonio river used to flood from time to time, wiping out huge swathes of the downtown area. Somehow, during the depression, San Antonio got the funds to build a flood control system below street level running through downtown. This little bit of floodproofing proved one of the more genius bits of urban engineering in this country. Not only has it proven an effective barrier against floods, it’s also given San Antonio a rivierside walkway running through downtown one floor below street level. This is a Very Big Deal as Texas can get warm in the summer. The entire areas is lined with shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, and a mall, and people use the daylights out of it. It’s fun, safe, comfortable, and unique. It makes me wonder why other cities in hot areas didn’t try the same thing.

Another point in San Antonio’s favor is that it missed the 1980’s downtown building boom. This means that all of the wonderful 1930’s WPA buildings are still not only standing but also in use. It’s a gorgeous downtown full of strange angles, gargoyles, grotesques, and beautiful art deco foyers. Most other cities razed their older buildings and dropped perfectly symmetrical skyscrapers in their place. Nothing against the Alamo, but the Tower Life building is way more interesting to look at.

Of course, nothing good in this country is immune to the incursion of hip, young gentrifiers and San Antonio is no exception. This probably frustrates the locals who want to live near downtown, but it’s great for visitors who want walk from downtown to the South Town district and get some seriously good Beligan food.

So, next time we decide to venture to the South, San Antonio’s on the list for a return visit. I have no clue how it is to live there (the sprawl seemed to be seriously out of control), but it’s a great burg to visit.Image

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Irony is officially over

Mike Pompeo, a U.S. Representative, is imploring SxSW to cancel the planned tele-appearance by Edward Snowden. I encourage you to read the entire piece. It’s really special. He’s either just an amazingly good liar or he doesn’t realize that the answer to nearly every one of his questions is “Bradley Manning.”

Nearly everything that has been released by Manning thus far has been evidence of massive lawlessness on the part of the NSA. It has demonstrated the utter lack of effectiveness of the bodies charged with oversight of the NSA’s activities. Thus far, the items that have been released apparently been true and accurate.

My point is that I don’t think it’s Snowden who has the credibility problem here.

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