The root to solving the problem

Here's an article saying that high schoolers are taking tougher courses and getting higher grades, but apparently learning less. There's a very ironic quote in the article:

"We know the root to solving the problem is having more rigor in classes, starting in 9th grade," said Norma Rodriguez, chief of high school curriculum and instruction for Chicago Public Schools.

I bet this quote came from the written transcript of a spoken interview. And I bet that Norma Rodriguez was actually talking about the route to solve the problem. Apparently journalists (and their editors!) are aren't immune to the national trend towards lower reading scores.

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Program yourself

I was in a dark mood tonight, so I flipped through YouTube looking for something to distract myself with. I came across Program Yourself. It tries to "hypnotize" you to be happy.

The really strange part is that once it was over, I found myself laughing. And then I laughed again, partly because it was funny that I was laughing after such a video. And then I laughed again. And then, of course, I had to laugh at how ironic it was that I had laughed so much after a 2.5 minute video that explicitly encouraged me to be happy.

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Scheduling vs. Manners

What I want at the moment is a standard way of representing a person's calendar in a machine-usable form, suitable for sending in an email. I just sent someone a "getting back in touch" email, and I had to find a way to simultaneously invite them to hang out, and convey my scheduling constraints, all in the same email. This is difficult because you don't want your calendar dump to make it sound like you're assuming they'll accept your invitation, but you also don't want to require a second go-around to set up a mutually agreeable time.

What would be best is if I could just attach a machine-readable calendar representing my availablility, and leave it up to them whether to pay attention to it or not.

I bet diplomats have an agreed-upon protocol for handling this kind of thing, but I don't know what it is.

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"Sarum"

I've been reading the book "Sarum", by Edward Rutherford. The book is a chronological history of England, seen through the eyes of a few fictional families in the area of Salisbury. The book starts when England is cut off from the mainland of Europe, then has chapters for the introduction of agriculture, the building of stonehenge, the Roman Empire, the invasion of the Vikings during the reign of King Alfred (which was amusing because my sister went to Alfred University and that's the only other time I'd heard of this apparently-well-known king), the beginning of parliament, the plague, and so on.

I'm about halfway through the book and judging from the Amazon comments, it might start bogging down as it gets closer to the present time. But so far I've really been enjoying it. The Roman Empire chapter was so interesting that I'm even considering tackling The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire eventually. Although that might be too much of a good thing...

One of the things I like about the characters in the book is that they're given relatively straightforward motivations. Even though it's not a very realistic portrayal of human psychology, it's still pleasing to imagine a world where people are motivated by only a couple driving forces, and the rest of their life can be disregarded as mere ballast.

Another thing I enjoy about the book: because it covers such a large time span it can't help but give off a feeling of vanitas. Perhaps I'm unusual, but I find vanitas very comforting when faced with confusion over where to lead my life. Because Rutherford decided to center the story around a handful of families whose line continues unbroken through the entire story, he implicitly gives an answer to the question of how to deal with the transience of human life: have children. As with the psychological makeup of the characters themselves, this is a simplistic answer, but it's pleasant nonetheless.

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Nip and Tuck

Via Jay comes a post from JagEsquire posted about how Maxim photo-edited a picture of Kata Dobo. They slimmed her waist, and increased her bust. The amusing part is that she's posing against some bathroom tiles, but they didn't adjust the grout lines -- so it's incredibly obvious that the photo was touched up.

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The Evolution of Playboy

Jason Salavon has four images that show the average of all Playboy centerfold pictures during four different decades. Yes, it's work-safe. The interesting thing is that, while you can't see any detail, you can clearly see that the average model has gotten much paler and blonder over time. Having perused some older playboys myself, I suspect they've also gotten a lot thinner, but you can't really see that in the images. (Via je').


Christopher Lydon

Je' tipped me off to the fact that Christopher Lydon has a weblog. I remember when he was the host for the Connection here in Boston, and although I thought he spent a bit too much time on how the internet was changing the world, he was still twenty times better than the two hosts that immediately followed him (I don't even remember their names). He was so good that I considered volunteering to transcribe his interviews so that they could be published on the web.

The current host for the connection is Dick Gordon, and he's very good. But now that I know Christopher Lydon has his own weblog, it's like getting bonus episodes! The fact that he still gets interviews with important people even though he's not on the radio anymore is very impressive, and a real testament to Mr Lydon.

Unfortunately even though his interviews are now on the web, they're still audio-only. I prefer text because I can read much more quickly than I can listen.

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La Favola d'Orfeo

While reading my history book a couple weeks ago, I came across a mention of Monteverdi's opera, La favola d'Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus) as being the first "real" opera. I mentioned it to someone at work who's into opera, and he replied that he happened to have a CD of it right there with him. He offered to let me listen to it, and since then I've been listening and re-listening to it several times a day. I never knew that I could like opera -- I haven't really liked any other opera that I've heard so far. I think I like it because the instrumental parts are of an earlier style than most operas.

I want to share a snippet of it, so that you know what it sounds like. This part doesn't have any actual singing (it's just instrumentals) but it's one of my favorite parts. You have to listen to the whole thing -- it repeats, and has a fuller, richer tone the second time around. I assume that quoting just 80 seconds of a recording falls under fair use, and so I can share it with you without violating copyright. If you enjoy it, I encourage you to buy the CD.

Listen and enjoy. (Note: if you hear a background hissing in the recording, try saving it to disk first).

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Alternative Currencies

Via Oblomovka, here's an interview with Bernard Lietaer, on how the current money system isn't working and is causing a lot of political destabilization in third-world countries. He gives examples of how alternate currencies can solve social problems (e.g. care of the elderly), and bootstrap economies where regular money is scarce (e.g. ghettos and student communities).

There is typically a reluctance among friends to pay for help provided by using national currency. If a friend is helping you move or paint and you pay him with national currency, it just doesn't feel right... It turns out that dollar exchanges tend to be incompatible with a gift economy. Complementary currencies are.

This line of thought seems very relevant to the Open Source and Free Sofware communities. The idea is that conventional currencies encourage competition, while time-dollar currencies can encourage cooperation.

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Economics

Brad DeLong has had a series of interesting blog posts recently.

First, he links to a PhD thesis by Petra Moser, which claims that patent protection causes investors to direct more investment to industries covered by patents than in other industries.

Inventors in countries without patent laws concentrated in industries where secrecy was effective relative to patents, e.g., food processing and scientific instruments. These results suggest that introducing strong and effective patent laws in countries without patents may have stronger effects on changing the direction of innovative activity than on raising the number of innovations.

Next, he provides a pointer to a discussion on the need for both heders (producers and consumers) and speculators (traders) in markets. Hedgers have tacit knowledge of the underlying commodity, while speculators provide liquidity. Successful markets must have both. The argument claims that the terrorism market probably wouldn't have worked because there would have been no hedgers to act as producers of terrorism (terrorists themselves wouldn't have participated).

He then goes on to discuss the "Exhorbitant Priviledges" that the U.S. enjoys because it provides the key international currency. One priviledge is that because the world economy is growing, we can simply print money to pay for our debts, without incurring as much inflation as other countries would. Another priviledge is that because we're politically stable, rich people in other countries invest in the dollar as a hedge against instability in their own government, thereby increasing demand. In effect, we're "exporting" political stability as well as worldwide growth potential, and these exports can compensate for some of our trade imbalance.

And finally, he wraps up with his recurring theme about productivity. Productivity is growing so fast these days that the US economy will have to grow at least 4% a year just to hold on to the jobs it already has. Lots of of interesting historical charts to gaze upon. Apparently we're in a very odd time, where productivity is growing even though employment is decreasing.

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From Dawn to Decadence

I'm reading a history book called From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. There's a passage in it that I think does a very good job of helping the reader sympathize with what it might have been like to live in sixteenth century Europe, where Christianity was all-pervasive:

Consider Predestination, which states that individual merit does not ensure salvation and that man has no free will. This has been the most widely held Protestant dogma. When an idea posesses so many minds and such good ones, it is foolish to write it off as fantasy; one must look for the experience on which it rests... I said earlier that predestination is still maintained by a good many non-believers; they might be surprised to hear it; they do not, indeed, believe that eternal damnation is decreed for the many, including unbaptized infants. But they do believe in scientific determinism -- the unbreakable sequence of cause and effect, and that is predestination. It is the assumption all laboratory workers make and it rules out free will. Any present state of fact, any action taken, is the inevitable outcome of a series of events going back to the Big Bang that produced the universe.

Social scientists and common folk who babble about genes or the Unconscious or "man a chemical machine" similarly account for others' actions and their own as did Luther and Calvin. The road taken was set from all eternity, with no choice at any moment: will is an illusion. The sense of being driven by a power not ourselves is not uncommon... Modern criminology is rooted in this conviction and public opinion in the main agrees: the criminal is not responsible for his acts; he is "conditioned." Grace (the right heredity or environment) has been denied him.

Other root beliefs of the 16th century also have their present counterparts. Luther's agonizing about sin is matched by the Existentialist preoccupation with Angst, or despair at "the human condition." Unaccountable "guilt" may be said to be popular today, notably among the many sufferers of depression. It is sometimes cured, as Luther's was, by introspection, on the analyst's couch and by acceptance of what is thus revealed. Catholic confession was a summary form of therapy.

Nor has the word sin disappeared from the vocabulary of the enlightened. More than one modern novelist, poet, or social theorist has attributed the horrors of our time to original sin, although its definition is left vague. It presupposes that human nature is fatally flawed. This is a more ruthless belief than the theologian's, since it does not include a Redeemer from sin or the efficacy of baptism. In the 16th century both together lifted that terrible burden. For some in our day what redeems "scientifically" is political revolution, after which history will stop and society will know happiness without laws -- in other words, the Kingdom of the Saints fought for by the Anabaptists and others for 100 years.

I especially liked the idea that Grace (as in "there but for the Grace of God go I") can be likened to having the right genes or upbringing, and the comparison of political revolution with the coming of the Kingdom of the Saints. Comparisons like this make religious ideas seem much more reasonable to an athiest like me.

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Boycott Metallica

Metallica is suing Canadian band "Unfaith" for using the chord sequence E F.

"We're not saying we own those two chords, individually - that would be ridiculous. We're just saying that in that specific order, people have grown to associate E, F with our music," blathers Lars Ulrich. "It's nothing personal against them, we intend to enforce our rights with any band intending to use Metallica-branded chords in the future."

Yes, this is true, I checked it on Google News. Time to burn any Metallica albums you have. May I recommend Apocalyptica as an excellent substitute? They play Metallica (as well as Pantera, Helmet, Prong, etc) songs on cellos.

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Blacks More Likely to be Shot than Whites

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Given only a fraction of a second to respond to images of men popping out from behind a garbage dumpster, people were more likely to shoot blacks than whites, even when the men were holding a harmless object such as a flashlight rather than a gun. The research used a virtual reality simulation and was prompted by a number of mistaken shootings of unarmed blacks by police officers in recent years.
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Sharia Law in Pakistan

A province of Pakistan is set to introduce Sharia law.

In recent weeks, Islamist youths have been tearing down billboards in the province that feature photographs of women and Western products. Musicians and dancers have been driven from the province as police enforce unofficial bans on music and performances...

One recently passed law in the province requires all civil servants to pray five times a day. Other recent legislation ... bans men from training or watching female athletes.

... the lack of opposition to the bill from the federal government ... belies a deeper political crisis in Pakistan... Musharraf may be attempting to gain backing from religious conservatives in the MMA for a series of controversial amendments to Pakistan's constitution [aimed at increasing his power over the country, and decreasing the power of the parliament]

Members of the Shi'ite Muslim minority in the NWFP also are concerned about their welfare under Sharia law in the Sunni-dominated province. Shi'ite community leader Allama Fakhrul Hassan Kararvi notes that while non-Muslims are exempt from the legislation, the present language of the Sharia Act is silent about the religious rights of Shi'ites.

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What I'm Reading

Currently on my nightstand table, I have these books:

I want to share a bit from Paradise Lost that I found especially vivid:

[Satan] Then straight commands that at the warlike sound
Of trumpets loud and clarions be upreared
His mighty standard; that proud honor claimed
Azazel as his right, a Cherub tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering staff unfurled
Th' imperial ensign, which full high advanced
Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind
With gems and golden lustre rich emblazed,
Seraphic arms and trophies: all the while
Sonórous metal blowing martial sounds:
At which the universal host upsent
A shout that tore Hell's concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.
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Matrix Reloaded

Here is an excellent article analyzing the second Matrix movie. If you haven't seen it, don't read the article -- it's full of spoilers. I loved Reloaded; it definitely lives up to the promise of first Matrix. Speaking of which, here's an excellent article analyzing the the first Matrix, with a Christian slant.

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The Hermetic Copybook

The Hermetic Copybook is a very interesting blog, dedicated entirely to "compelling passages from current readings". The passages currently on the front page involve anti-semitism, eugenics, africa, sustainable development, strike breaking, King Edward II, etc. All the passages are well-written and thought-provoking. I hope more people make blogs like this.

By the way, I found The Hermetic Copybook by following these directions for loading random blogs.

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A Plague of Angels

I finished reading A Plague of Angels while I was on the plane to Dallas. As with The Gate to Women's Country, the only other Sheri S. Tepper book I've read, this one is about a post-apocalyptic society that appears to function in one way, but is actually controlled by a secret group who ensure that humanity doesn't end up destroying itself all over again. They exercise their control very indirectly, by making sure that certain human tendencies (e.g. a predisposition towards warefare, or a disregard for the environment) can no longer influence the course of society.

A theme common to both the books is the idea that humans should live in ways that are locally sustainable. For example, all food should be grown within two days travel by horse. The idea reassures me very deeply.

When contemplating sustainable development, I get the same kind of feeling that I got when the internet bubble collapsed -- a concrete knowledge that the rules of society actually do persist longer than a single generation. A knowledge, gained from experience, that next time when the pundits claim that the New Economy means we will never have a bear market again, that they're deluding themselves.

I don't know whether western civilization itself is currently riding a bubble. And if so, I don't know how big the bubble is -- is it the last ten years? twenty? a hundred? a thousand? If the bubble popped, how far would we fall?

What I do know is that after I finished the book, I looked out the airplane window, and watched as mile after mile, city after city, state after state passed by, and nearly all the land was developed. A somewhat depressing view, given the mood I was in.

I would have a lot more confidence in our current course if capitalism truly reflected the costs of everything. But it doesn't. For one thing, we don't put any price on things like using up oil reserves or polluting the oceans. Those are costs that we will eventually have to pay, but for now we pretend that they're free.

And even more than that, we allow ourselves to get massively in debt. The US is $6.4 trillion in debt. That means we've bought an unimaginable number things without paying for them. Yet.

And these two things are multiplicative. Not only have we bought things without paying for them, our current idea of how much we owe for them doesn't include externalities like the cost of using up the environment.

This type of behavior is dangerous. It's like selling your car on the weekend so that you can afford to go to a movie, and then realizing on Monday that you can't get to work. But you know what? It doesn't matter whether you, a consumer, do anything about this. Because what really matters is that people that control millions and billions of times more money than you ever will are acting like this. The CEOs and the politicians.

I don't know, maybe voting for the Green party would help?

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