Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Oy. Headlines.

James pointed out this juxtaposition in today's BBC News Site headline.
Imagining the Life of the City

One of my favorite textbooks in seventh grade was from Latin class, but it wasn't really about Latin. It was the elegantly illustrated black and white "City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction," and the description of building an imaginary Verbonia--an Augustean laying out of civilization, cut from whole cloth, directly upon an Italian country side--has left me with a lifelong fascination with urban planning and architecture. On one hand, one must be slightly askance at the hubris of designing the entire shape of a city's life. Examples abound of what a bad idea that can be. On the other--if you were an emperor, would you be able to resist? When I'm lulling myself to sleep with dreams of suddenly winning the lottery, half the time my utterly hypothetical spending revolves around rebuilding whole city blocks. I indulge because it's so improbable that my ego will ever be tempted into something really foolish.

And of course it's easy to mock the immense amount of work and vision it takes to design and build something as huge as a city, or even a piece of it. It's easy for ordinary people to get sucked into letting the bigwigs handle everything. But even if ordinary people can't master all the details and nuances, they've still got to concern themselves with the shaping of their homes and geographies, and be afforded the opportunity to criticize and analyze. Perhaps too many cooks might spoil the soup, but I can't help but feel that checks and balances and the wisdom of the swarm will tend to fix bugs in urban design. And as Gandhi said, freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. A free people, thoroughly engaged with the urban planning process--as they should be, in a real democratic state--will at least live with their own mistakes, instead of with the whims of a Caesar.

I don't know enough about the history of French urban planning politics to know if a little more egalitarian architectural civic engagement would have helped with the problems of the riots. Geeky Chic has a thought-provoking post up about a new New York Times article on the effect of Le Corbusier's placement of residential towers for the poor on the city outskirts. The article, by Christopher Caldwell:
But high-rise apartments mixed badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.
Geeky Chic points out that these same types of structures are, when placed near downtown, eminently desirable and almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy:
One of SSRD's friends this weekend told me that they wouldn't even allow him to view [the San Francisco St. Regis Tower] without being pre-approved for $1.69 million mortgage (though, I understand the sales staff's desire to keep out apartment tourists with neither the intentions nor ability to make a purchase). One explanation, is that with the right details (i.e. a Viking kitchen, a view, and a doorman), these towers are vertical gated communities in the city center.
I've often thought about the nature of security in a mixed-use residential tower. When I was in first grade, my reading textbook had a story written from the point of view of a little girl, describing the tower she lived in--everything was there, her school, her grocery store, parks and gardens, even her parents' offices. They might leave on weekends to go to museums or bigger parks, or the beach, but during the week she could safely get to anything via elevator. As a suburban child constantly warned not to cross a major street without holding an adult's hand, I found this deeply appealing. I have no idea where such a tower might exist in real life. The Next Generation's Starship Enterprise then came along and exacerbated this fascination--I was entranced by how many different kinds of places the ship's inhabitants could get to without leaving the ship.

So part of me thinks that the best way to secure a tower--for the rich or the poor--against elevator hijacking, or the excessive visits of outsiders, would be to hand out coded electronic keys, allowing for the pinpointing of troublemakers and the efficient exclusion of outsiders. "Communicators" are not remotely far-fetched anymore. They would also allow for the monitoring of children, giving them a lot of range without requiring more supervision. Parents would always be able to find their children, but their children wouldn't need to wait for their parents to go anywhere. It might give rich residents enough peace of mind to make them more amenable to not excluding poor or working class residents. But there are lots of privacy issues with this scheme--the building's computer would end up holding an easily searchable and subpoenable database of everyone's comings and goings. That's one thing in a hotel, office or university environment, but another in the supposed privacy of one's own home. Yet I am still enamored of the idea of troops of little children having whole palaces at their ready disposal.

That's all a little castle-in-the-air. Really, more like castle-in-outer-space! But the issues raised by the articles and Geeky Chic are important and current. Check out her post. Also note that Lenin's Tomb and then The Measures Taken had detailed discussions of the French specifics a couple weeks ago; the latter has a lot of interesting pictures.
Friday, November 25, 2005
And We Sent Them To the Wars To Be Slain, To Be Slain

Rhinocrisy and Talking Points Memo, link to today's LA Times article by Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall: trying to make it look good on Bush in time for the midterm elections, the administration may try to significantly withdraw troops from Iraq over the next year or so.

I was cleaning my room yesterday and I found my copy of the Readymades album, by Chumbawamba. There's a sad, angry, beautiful song early on the album called Jacob's Ladder. It's about the 1,591 British sailors whom Churchill let drown in the cold waters off Scandinavia rather than risk the evacuation of the Norwegian Royal family. It's a chilling reminder that even when you're on the right side of a necessary war, your leaders might very well be more concerned about class loyalties and the status quo than they are about preserving freedom and protecting the people as a whole. (You're not going to get any postcolonial love from me for Mr. Churchhill. He did his jobs, one of which was necessary, all right. That's about all.) There's a line in the song that we might want hanging in the newsrooms:
In a file marked ‘Secret’, In a drawer kept closed, Nobody wonders, Because nobody knows.
I'm unapologetic about being a sucker for hooky pop music, and the ubiquitous Tubthumping is a favorite, despite being terribly overplayed. I had no idea that Chumbawamba was actually an incredibly political group until the fall of 2002, I think, when released a mix of anti-war songs and I first heard Jacob's Ladder (mp3 link)--albeit the version from the end of the album, retooled for our times:
Like the sermon on the mountain,
Says the dumber got dumb,
Hellfire and brimstone swapped for oil and guns.
When we're pushing up daisies, we all look the same
In the name of the father, maybe, but not in my name.

On this Jacob's ladder, the only way up is down
One step from disaster, two to make the higher ground
Jacob's ladder.

And they sent him to the wars to be slain, to be slain,
And they sent him to the wars to be slain.

A million lifetimes, left lying in the sun,
In the streets down at Whitehall, dogs picking at the bones,
9/11 got branded, 9/11 got sold,
There'll be no one left to water all the seeds you sowd.

On this Jacob's ladder, the only way up is down
One step from disaster, two to make the higher ground
Jacob's ladder.

And they sent him to the wars to be slain, to be slain
And they sent him to the wars to be slain
And they sent him to the wars to be slain, to be slain
And they sent him to the wars to be slain

On this Jacob's ladder, the only way is up and down
One step from disaster, two to make the higher ground
Jacob's ladder.

Well, puppydog leader, sooner or later,
we'll dig up your cellar, and try you for murder.
Well, puppydog leader, sooner or later,
we'll dig up your cellar, and try you for murder.
Well, puppydog leader, sooner or later,
we'll dig up your cellar, and try you for murder . ..
I don't think I've listened to this recording since right before we invaded Iraq. Listening to a song after such a long time can be a bit like plunging into the ocean of the past--back when we thought marching might stop a war, or letter-writing, or something. There was a time when we hadn't invaded, when this mess might have been avoided. I remember marching, I remember sitting out on the lawn in San Francisco, and seeing my fellow protesters clamber to sit in the tree branches with their puppets and their drums, and suddenly realizing with despair that nothing would help at all. And up out of the memory-sea I escape, breathless, stomach slightly queasy with swallowed regret, face slapped by the cold reality of the present: 2300 dead coalition soldiers. 3643 dead Iraqi security soldiers. Approximately 55 dead journalists. At least 286 dead contractors. God only knows how many, many dead Iraqi civilians -- at least 30,000, most likely 100,000, only as of two years ago. At least 15,000 wounded Americans, who knows how many wounded Iraqis. $220 odd Billion gone, much of it simply wasted.

Our troops have six months at least, maybe a year or more, to slog through and try to survive. The Iraqis have the forseeable future to deal with the hornets' nest of death and disorder we've stirred up for them. We've found no weapons of mass destruction, and there's no evidence that we're any safer, nor that our allies bordering Iraq are any safer. Despite my opposition to this war, I'm still hoping that in a few years time, Iraq could be better off--at least set on a better trajectory--than it was a few years ago. But no matter how much better off it is, it will be missing 100,000 civilians from a population approximately the same as New York and New Jersey states. Imagine walking around New Jersey and New York, and every time you meet a licensed medical doctor, imagine that that they stand for one violent civilian death. Then imagine what that would do to everyone's psychology, and to the economy. Much more than that happened in Iraq because of what our government decided to do, and because of what our president decided to do.

We didn't stop the war. We sent them all off to be slain.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Of Gratitude and Grace

Thanksgiving is a pretty low key holiday in my family. It gets a bit mashed-up with my birthday, which often falls on a busy pre-vacation day and therefore gets postponed in celebration.

On my birthday there's always a bit of obligatory remembrance of the fact that my birth was totally insane. I was born three months early, and in the late 70s, even more than now, that was not normal. Of course, 3 months is too early for the baby to turn, and I was a breech footling. It involved a fall on the ice, a huge blizzard, hysterical nurses running through hallways, and nervous interns. When the moment of truth came, the hospital didn't even bother calling my dad, so he never got a chance to help with the decision making process or talk to his wife before she went under. Instead they put all the pressure on my mother, who was feeling a considerable amount of pain and distress. They advised this anxious woman that she was better off delivering her baby normally--almost certainly causing said baby to die--rather than risking surgery. Well, if ever a mother pulled double duty during labor, it was mine--she held her ground and insisted that they do a C-section so as not to crush my skull. My mother exerted her fierce will until they relented and set her up for surgery, nervously waiting for her obstetrician to make it across town through the 17 inches of snow. And, guess what? Everything worked out fine. My dad showed up in the morning to check up on his wife, and found he had another kid, significantly ahead of schedule. I made it home to my sister (who had requested me) by Christmas, chubbier than full-term babies born the same day, with no illin' at all. What could have been an awful day instead turned into a rather funny story to be reminisced over every year. You should hear my mother imitate the hysterical nurse.

Last fall, before the election, I picked up a copy of John Edwards's Four Trials. But there was just too much else to read. My mother, however, did read it, and she told me I should read the second trial, that the story was horribly similar yet dissimilar to ours. Since my birthday last year followed disappointing defeat, I was too depressed to read Edwards's book. But this year my birthday reminded me of Edwards, and today I picked it up and read the story of Peggy and Jeff O'Shea. The same year I was born, the same year John Edwards's oldest son Wade was born, Peggy O'Shea was warned--weeks ahead of time--that her child had not turned and might be delivered by C-section. But everything else was fine, and there was plenty of time to prepare for a C-section on a full-term baby on a clear Carolina day. Yet "Dr. D." still did a breech extraction. His teenage patients trustingly deferred to his judgement, unaware of the potential consequences. Their daughter Jennifer almost died at birth, and was then diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I often say, when encountering sad circumstances, "There, but for the grace of God, go I," but this one is a little too close to home.

You don't have to believe in the grace of God to be grateful for the good things life tosses you--whether you see it as coming to you gracefully or by lottery. Nor do you have to feel that it indicates anything good about you or anything bad about someone else to be grateful for what you have that others lack. It is repulsive to gloat. But graceful gratitude is ground in a foundation of humility. All these good things are not really mine, I just happen to be holding them. Let me make the most of them. We are all in unique positions in life--uniquely blessed and uniquely cursed. The balance is hard to measure, and perhaps unnecessary to calculate. On some other day we can acknowledge our unique combinations of misery and misfortune. Wade Edwards, just a few months older than me, was by all accounts a charming, kind, interesting young man, seemingly cast by destiny to be a beloved scion in an accomplished, prosperous family. When we were both around the same age, perhaps just before I did the same thing in the High Sierras, he went on an Outward Bound course in Colorado, and wrote in his journal of his gratitude to his family, much as I did. And then in the spring as I got ready for college, he died in a car accident.

Edwards concludes his memoir, "I have learned two great lessons-that there will always be heartache and struggle, and that people of strong will can make a difference. One is a sad lesson; the other is inspiring. I choose to be inspired." It's hard to contemplate contemporary lives that have diverged so wildly from our parallel. It's hard to know what to do with such raw gratitude. But it's good to have a day for it.

Thanks for food, family, & friends, both new and old. I'm also thankful for all my wonderful readers. You give these contemplations and musings a home in your mind, however briefly, and for that I am very grateful.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Fun Days

Saturday I had fun at a wedding. You know the tradition where you ding the glasses with your fork to make the bride and groom kiss? I love that. Ding Ding Ding Ding! Kiss! Applause! Awww. Eat some more. Ding Ding Ding Ding! Kiss! Applause! Awww. Eat some more. And again! But when there are little kids at the wedding, they sometimes keep dinging the glass. All they know is that all of a sudden it's okay--even the adults are doing it!---to bang on your glass with your silverware, and when you do it, people applaud, so it's really great. They don't even know to look at the bride and groom to see if they're kissing. They're just happy making noise! I suppose it wouldn't be as special for the adults if there were lots of other occasions in life when people in suits and fancy dress could bang on crystal goblets with spoons and forks, but I can't help but wish it wasn't only at weddings.

On Sunday I had fun at the zoo. I tagged along with some computational biologists in search of zoological insight. Perhaps they found some--I found cute animals, cute kids, kettle corn, and tree-filtered November sunlight. The really little kids could be amazed by just about anything that happened. ("Mom! Look! MOM! He's EATING! The Gorilla is EATING!") Most of them were less than six, running about underfoot. The few school age children I noticed must have been true critter connosieurs. As I regarded the blue-faced mandrill's thickly muscled limbs and seemingly hostile gaze, I speculated that the fence must be electrified, since its mere structure hardly seemed enough to enclose such a strong beast--the primate seemed so close. My friend Lior, who's pretty tall, teased me that he could lift me up over the fence and drop me in and then the mandrill would be quite close. "Oh no!" I said, "well, at least he wouldn't eat me." A boy, perhaps 10-years-old, turned to me with a very somber face. "Yes. Yes he would." Then he went back to carefully watching the mandrill. Luckily, I think he was wrong, but it certainly put the fear of baboon into me.

Nick has posted a shot of two grizzly bears we saw--one was biting the other on the head. Well, more like the bridge of the nose. Were they fighting, grooming, or necking? I have no idea. Perhaps all three at the same time. Pretty magnificent beasts, regardless.

Yesterday was not so exciting, but I have collected some fun links. From TK: Star Wars Transformers! TK also sent me this BBC article about surveillance cameras in Britain tracking the license plates of getaway cars. From Snarkmarket--facsimiles of three original illustrated Strand Sherlock Holmes stories! (These are the Sherlock Holmes I grew up reading, as I have most of them collected in a single volume.) From Manish@SepiaMutiny: Colored Bubbles that don't stain--Zubbles! Whee! From Reneebop--a chart of GWB's Gallup approval ratings--in decline. From Matt Yglesias, an LA Times article about smuggled seahorses thriving at SEA Lab. What a wacky world we live in.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
A Little More On Education

So I had thought that after my somewhat cranky reaction to the composition of Slate's college education panel yesterday morning, it might be nice to follow up having RTFA, but I could not open Slate all morning. Now they're opening, but I shall have to download the articles and read them later.

There were a lot of interesting comments in response to yesterday's post, and I'm hoping for more, because they all provide a lot of food for thought. I'd like to clarify and elaborate on my points.
After reading the comments, here are some ideas, all rather off the cuff. For all I know they're sitting there, fleshed out, in Slate's panel, but I can't check!

1) A mathematical booster shot in college might be called for. Maybe it's too much to ask college students to learn more math, but they should at least leave having as much as they did entering. Moreover, the booster shot could be more enticingly tailored to be about the trials and tribulations of modern citizenship. Lessons in statistics that are motivated by poker would be less objectionable if given to adults rather than to impressionable teens.

2) Instead of making science and math classes easier by watering them down, they should be made easier by stretching them out. Can't handle the rigourous pace of Intro Calculus as it's required of math and physics majors? Well, you don't really need that pace anyway. That pace is necessary for science majors so they can finish everything they need to learn before they graduate. So instead of one hard and fast four unit class, how about two gentle two unit classes that each go very slowly but very thoroughly? Or, instead of creating a separate curriculum for non-majors, how about only creating a separate environment? The curve would be less punishing. Probably too expensive a solution for a public university, but it seems like Ivy league students, at least, could demand more for their money this way.

This gets us to a third problem. Echan told me that one of the reasons future law students avoid math and science classes they might have happily taken in high school is they're terrified of having their GPA sunk, and a C in Organic Chemistry would be much worse than not having attempted it at all. Even when I was still a biology major, my biology advisors told me that a B in physics for physicists would be much worse for biology grad school or medical school than an A in physics for biologists, even though the advisors felt they were equally likely outcomes.

Either these fears are false or graduate and professional programs really are that dense in overrelying on the straight GPA and not analyzing the structure of a trascript. If it's mythology, then humanities professors need to work hard to debunk that theory, and let their students know it's better to be challenged and stumble than stay in safe comfort zones. If it's not a mythology, then it should be made one. I'd much rather have lawyers who had straight As in law-related classes but also challenged themselves with astronomy and statistics rather than padding out their As with more of the same. Even if a future lawyer or journalist did poorly compared to future astronomers and statisticians, those C's should still be badges of honor and adventure.

There is also a whole related debate on good teaching vs. bad teaching. I'd like to clarify that I'm not saying that math does not require any memorization or rote learning, just that well understood math will not reduce to only memorization and rote learning. A more expert, if somewhat more sharper-tongued, blogger on this matter is sometime Canadian college math instructor Moebius Stripper over at Tall Dark and Mysterious. She's just switched jobs, and I'm not sure if her new one involves teaching, but trawling her archives is a good way to be both scandalized and amused at the state of math education. The comments are often particularly good. She dislikes giving calculators to small children. She also found this frightening gem of a college newspaper editorial by one Stacy Perk, University of Iowa journalism student extrordinaire:
I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid. . .

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.

Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.

How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.
I hope and pray this was ironic, maybe even a prank, especially given the writer's name. Even if it turns out to be fake, in its sarcasm it encapsulates the extreme of the position which I am opposing. If it's real--yikes.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Grrrr: Slate Forgets Half of Campus

I love Slate. I love its tone and format, its casual but smart use of links, the range of authors it uses, the way it dives into nitty gritty, intellectual debates in a highly conversational and accessible way. And I love the extent to which it drags academics--public intellectuals--into the conversation, and opens up their world to readers.

So I was pretty excited to see today's package on the future of liberal education in America, Harvard-centric as it is. I had some minor operational quibbles with the way the package is organized, but I like the idea of letting a bunch of professors battle out their vision for what college should be in such a public forum. I might have taken it a step further and talked to people not in Academia--for example, it would have been interesting to have each of these professors nominate an especially accomplished, respected student from the past ten years who's not currently in academia, and then get that student's take on things as well. But perhaps that might be saved for the second iteration of the discussion.

What really should have been included in the first iteration was, well, some math or science. By my count the authors' fields are: Religion & Public life, Committee on Social Thought, Philosophy, unknown, Psychology, Psychology, Literature, European History, Kenyon College President, Classics, and History & Germanic Studies. All great fields. I'll let others stand up and shout about the lack of art or music or theater, the possible Euro-centrism, and what have you. There are plenty who are louder and better about complaining about that. But no Mathematics, Statistics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Environmental Science, Geography, Astronomy, and, let me repeat, no Mathematics? Remember Plato? Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter. There is not one person on this list, as far as I can tell, who would necessarily have been required to take calculus in college. It's completely ludicrous to assume that Science and Mathematics form no part of a liberal education, but Slate has stacked the deck towards such an assumption by not involving any scientists or mathematicians in their query. Luckily Alison Gopnik, K. Anthony Appiah, Steven Pinker & W. Robert Connor, bless them, seems to be speaking up for quantitative reasoning. But what was Slate thinking?

I've often said that if I was Empress, I'd make everyone in college take mathematics through mutivariable calculus. I recently saw an Econ professor pose a problem to a room of mostly economics students, attributed to Charlie Munger: Imagine you have a rope tied taut around the equator of the earth. Now imagine that you want the rope to be raised five feet above the ground everywhere. How much more rope would you need? The point of the story, both when Munger told the story and when the professor did, is that most people--people who all had to take the SATs and do well to get into the audience--are stumped and have huge answers, on the orders of miles. I--and, I think, a couple other people--sort of ruined the story by blurting out the answer. "Um, well, 2 times pi times, yeah, 5--so about 30 feet? A little more?"

See, the original amount of rope is 2*pi*r, where r is the radius of the earth. People think that r is involved, and freak out wishing they knew it. But the new amount of rope is 2*pi*(r+5) --so the difference is just 2*pi*5, and r is not necessary to answer the question as posed. The Professor, who majored in physics and knew that I majored in physics, rolled his eyes slightly. "Okay, well, those of us who majored in physics and would have to be beaten to death before we'd forget 2*pi*r get the answer, but most people don't." His point was that it's not knowledge which is retained from education, it's how to think. Really, what it is, is how to not panic. I agree, but I also think that you shouldn't have to major in physics to know basic arithmetic and geometry so well that you have to be beaten to death in order to forget it, and you shouldn't need to major in physics to not panic when requested to think just a bit seriously about the nature of a circle. Knowing basic arithmetic and geometry is not knowing a collection of facts and strategies. It's knowing how to think a particular way so well that you don't have to remember a collection of facts and strategies. Literature and rhetoric teach us how to think in terms of language and arguments--a linear progression of spoken and written thoughts. History teaches us to think in terms of chronological sequences of human events. But mathematics teaches us to think in terms of numbers--which are everywhere--and shapes and proportions and visual maps. Science teaches us to think about evidence and uncertainty. Geography teaches us to think about space. And in the real world we have to constantly deal with numbers, shapes, proportions, maps, evidence and uncertainty. They're utterly vital to being a well-rounded thinker.

My family is probably laughing at me, because when I was little and not wanting to finish my math homework, they told me all these things and I pouted and said I was the creative type. Which, you know, I am. True story: When I was eight, I said I wanted to be an architect. My dad smiled and said architects had to know a lot of math. I sulked and said fine, no architecture for me. Then I grew up and majored in physics. The thing is, I'm not eight anymore, and neither are most college students. (The ones who are eight and in college are not the ones who need convincing.) In journalism school I saw brilliant students--graduates of top ten universities, who had clearly done beautifully on their SATs to get where they were, with fine analytical minds, shining self-confidence, and years of work experience--freak out over calculating percentages with a calculator, figuring out the area of a rectangular rug from its posted dimensions, or doing the arithmetic necessary for laying out a webpage with tables. Of course, all of this was well within their abilities. And most of the time they got it after a while, sometimes correctly. But it was disconcerting to watch them panic over something I knew they could do--and something which is so terribly important. Colleges tell non-science majors that they are no good at science and no longer need to know math. And the students believe the colleges. Then they grow up and run the world--badly.

Back at Slate, Michael Berube predictably tars those not around to defend themselves:
Amid the confused alarms of the 1990s culture wars, very few people realized that some of the most determined opponents of general education courses in the Western tradition were quite far afield—over in the finance, physics, and engineering wings of the campus, where neither professors nor students could be persuaded to see the point of getting acquainted with the Western literary and philosophical tradition from Plato to Nietzsche (or Homer to DeLillo). . . .Though I understood those professors' desires to train students in the dense technical aspects of their fields, I believed that A) students of finance, physics, and engineering will, upon graduation, have to live in an advanced society partly of their own making;. .
I'm sorry, I need more evidence of this oft-repeated, cliched narrative. I went to one of the strongest engineering and science schools in the country. But I know that any science and engineering major at Berkeley is required to take some humanities and social science courses at the same level as humanities and social science majors, while humanities and social science majors are always offered--and usually gleefully take--courses that are purposefully dumbed down. There's no other way to describe them, they are dumbed down. Every science department has some service course that's been stripped of problem sets and bizarrely spun to be more fun. There is simply no analogue going the other way. You can find plenty of science graduates who have analyzed Shakespeare, taken Latin, read Nietzsche, and ruthlessly followed politics and economics. How many politicians, economists, philosophers, classicists, writers or journalists know in their bones what a derivative is, how to analyze a histogram, or what stars are made of? We science-students read books for fun, but do we journalism students do math problems for fun?

Let's see. Our budget is deeply out of balance, our climate is changing, we're fighting over teaching the basis of all modern biology in the public schools, and the current rage in the blogosphere is over the technical meaning of the chemical in chemical weapons. The American people have very little understanding of how income and poverty are distributed in this country, how common death and destruction are in Iraq, or how much more likely they themselves are to die by gunshot than by plane crash. What do you think tomorrow's citizens need to learn better?
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
In Memoriam: Vine Deloria Jr., 1933-2005

From GreenInk I read that Vine Deloria Jr., has died. When I was a sophomore in high school taking American History, my final project/research paper for the year ended up being on the American Indian Movement and related efforts at self-determination. I'm not 100% sure how I got on that subject since I know I started out the year wanting to write a paper on the environmental movement. But I do remember running into Deloria's biting prose at the public library, and getting sucked into it, sitting in the narrow aisles. I'm a big fan of careful, measured statements, but this was a man who lunged for the gut and swiped at the ego, who did not have time for cheap politeness. He was not just being a show-off wit and his sarcasm was fueled by heartfelt experience. From Amazon I find the second page of Custer Died For Your Sins:
"We often hear "give it back to the Indians" when a gadget fails to work. It's a terrible thing for a people to realize that society has set aside all non-working gadgets for their exclusive use."
I'm afraid I haven't remotely kept up with Native issues since then, just taking a related religious studies class in college. It's a shortcoming--I should read more. I know I didn't, and don't, agree with much of what he had to say, but I admire deeply the work he did to make sure he and his people were finally heard. I shall have to rectify my ignorance in his wake.
Monday, November 14, 2005

Yesterday (and Saturday) I went to the 3rd I 3rd International South Asian Film Fesitval. Saturday was Bollywood extravaganza night with Paheli (how could I resist with a rhyme like that?) but yesterday was documentary night with City of Photos, about portrait studios in India. Unfortunately I missed the beginning, but it was one of those funny, moving documentaries which made me wish all such were released on DVD as a matter of course.

At one point we see a young woman in a narrow sitting room with stacks of albums, showing off photos. She keeps saying how she really, really likes getting her photo taken, and gosh she has a lot of them. There's a photo of her and half a dozen other friends, dressed in colorful salwar suits, all standing single file in narrow, narrow dark wooden boat on the beach, hands outstretched like wings. She shows it off proudly: "This is the pose from Titanic." Then she's arranged, artistically in a white sari, on some rocks in a pond. Another pose, from a Bollywood movie. Then her with Hrithik Roshan. She cut out actress Amisha's face, and ruined many of her own photos to get herself in the picture. (Just imagine this woman armed with Photoshop!) Her friends tease her that she doesn't like Amisha, but no, she wants to be closer to Hrithik. She confides in the camera--her husband doesn't know about this one. If he did, he'd tear up the albums. Only her friends know. "And now, you all." Then we see her mother, who also has stacks of albums, and says she took the children for portraits every time they got new clothes. At weddings, she says, "I'm always in front of the video camera." She says her brothers give her a hard time because they say photography is a sin,
"I tell them, you'll sleep in your grave, and I'll sleep in mine."
She explains to the interviewer, "In our Islam, photography is considered a sin."
The interviewer, who has encountered this attitude previously in the film, asks, "Oh, you don't think it is?" Oh no, the woman replies, she knows it is, but it makes her so happy she does it anyway. Besides, with so much sin in the world, how will a little photography matter?


Speaking of photography, it's been a long time since I linked to Sam Javanrouh's work at Daily Dose of Imagery, but hopefully you all check it regularly anyway. Some recent gems: Pillowfight (and on flickr) makes me want to move to Toronto; cyclist friendly area in England, a lacy window in the Divinity School at Oxford, and pumpkin fields. He's got another flickr slideshow of reflections here.

My friend Alexandra has some pictures from Paris, and previously, from spending time with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Niger. You'll have to scroll though as she doesn't have permalinks, but it's worth it.

And Nicolas caught yesterdays beautiful sunset over the bay.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
On Giving Partisan Presidential Speeches to Troops in Formation

JD Henderson over at Intel-Dump shredded the President's Veteran's Day speech:

"Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and mislead the American people about why we went to war," Bush said.
Notice how he puts "democrats" in front of "anti-war critics." Masterful. First, not all democrats are against the war. There are also republicans who are NOT against the war who are concerned about the administration's alleged manipulation of intelligence. Phrased like this, however, and any criticism of the president over manipulation of intelligence or misleading the American people becomes "partisan."

Then there is the term "anti-war critics." He links it to "democrats" as if to suggest democrats are "anti-war" instead of "anti- invasion of Iraq" (or more correctly, split on the issue). He assumes, rightly, that most people won't notice the lack of criticism over the invasion of Afghanistan - if his critics were merely "anti-war" why do they question only one of the wars we are in right now? Any person who criticizes the invasion of Iraq or the manipulation of intelligence is thus subtly portrayed as a pacifist hippie - an "anti-war critic." Instead of discussing whether the invasion was a good idea or a bad idea, the entire issue becomes one of dope-smoking, flag-buring, no-good pacifist hippies versus good 'ole Americans. That is BS. Lots of people, including many decorated military officers who have served this nation under fire, thought (and think) that invading Iraq was stupid. But suddenly they are "anti-war" instead of "anti-stupidity." And notice how, incredibly, the question of "why did we go to war" is no longer even up for discussion. The president is NOT stupid like some critics think, and this one paragraph by him shows why. Brilliant. Anyone asking him "why did we go to war then?" is automatically a "democrat and anti-war critic" at best, at worst a traitor to America - all without the question being answered. After all, who are we as citizens to dare question the president about why he sent our sons and daughters into harms' way? (Emphases mine.)
Henderson goes on to excoriate the President for the context of his speech:
However, this speech was a partisan political attack on political opponents, not a speech intended to build support for victory. It was intended to build support for the Republican party, not for victory in Iraq. What is particulary shameful about such a speech, on Veterans Day (a day for all Americans, not just those who agree with Bush), is that he gave it on a military post. While most people miss the significance of this, it used to be unusual for a partisan speech to be given to troops in formation. The troops were always supposed to be apolitical, and not get caught up in partisan politics. Respect fro the troops dictated that they be kept out of political rallies, that candidates avoid placing them in a situation where the troops seem to be expressing support for one candidate or party over another. Troops are not supposed to express their political opinions when in uniform - it is even against the law for troops to wear their uniforms to political rallies. This president ignores this. He is the only one among all of our commanders-in-chief who has given, repeatedly given, partisan political speeches, even attack speeches, to troops in formation, on a military post, who may very well oppose him privately and vote for his political opponents. Then the troops are expected to cheer him. They do - not because of what he says, but because he is the president. I saw troops cheer Clinton too - but he never gave a partisan speech to troops in uniform. Neither did Reagan. Reagan addressed national security issues, but he didn't badmouth democrats or opposing candidates when addressing the troops. Bush does. Shame on him for this - regardless of whether you agree politically with him or not, this is shameful and unacceptable behavior. And, need I say it, dangerous. (Emphases mine)
Brilliant. Read the rest of it.

Henderson doesn't dwell on one aspect which I would like to remind people of: the notion that the legislative branch had all the same intelligence as the executive branch is absurd, prima facie, because of course there aren't even a remotely comparable number of people (and staff) with the classified status to read the relevant intelligence in The House and the Senate.

While I am still disappointed in those Legislators who gave this president such an open-ended authorization for war, it still seems that it was a much more reasonable vote in the Fallof 2002 given what the White House was telling the public and Congress--even those members of congress who were able to read classified intelligence not available to to the public. Moreover, it seems increasingly clear that the White House knew that this was the case, and deliberately withheld evidence and analysis from Congress that might have changed certain members' minds. And on top of that, there is the fact that a lot of things changed between the Fall of 2002 and March of 2003, all pointing away from the need for an invasion. So the vast majority of the blame for the war still lies squarely on the Executive branch and those members of the Legislative branch who would have voted with the Executive branch regardless of the evidence.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Take Care Jordan

If you scale for population, in terms of deaths, it seems to me yesterday's bombings in Amman were approximately as similarly fatal for Jordan as 9/11 was for the United States. (Feel free to check my quick arithmetic.) When we said we'd bring the fight closer to the terrorists, I had hoped we didn't mean "even if that means bringing it to our friends and allies." But it was a pessimistic hope even then. I have long admired Jordan for actually walking the walk when it comes to finding a future for Palestinians--if I recall correctly, it's the only Arab country that has given large numbers of Palestinians citizenship. It has really tried to keep peace with Israel for ten years now, without being as massively bribed as Egypt. It's a far cry from a liberal democracy, but it does seem like they are set on a path of extending freedoms and tolerances. Even before 9/11, but particularly after, I had frequently opined in email and conversation on how it would be great if there was a way for Americans to privately cultivate a stronger economic and cultural friendship with the more liberal Arab states, like Jordan and Morocco, and in particular Jordan. Some kind of America Jordan Foundation. Unfortunately, I don't personally know any Jordanians very well, and the chances of my travelling there any time soon are very low. It remained a castle in my sky. Maybe if the idea gets passed around someone can take it to the ground.

I cannot imagine the grief of losing your fathers at your wedding; the horror of turning a reception into a slaughter. These celebrations are at the heart of any society, and striking at them is an attempt to strike at hope and love and visions of the future. My hope is that Jordan will strike back with those very things. Ethan Zuckerman has much more experienced and wise words, and a good round up of the blogs. Ahmad Humeid points us to a Jordanian blog aggregator, Jordan Planet, which reads like continuous stream of sorrow and determination right now. I can only send my condolences and respects.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I'm happy to see the dry blue skies. After last night's deluge, which got me soaked from my socks to my shirt, I was afraid it would be yet another election day where Orange County got all the sunshine. Go vote! And Californians, let me know what you think of Proposition 80 by the mid-afternoon. I'm procrastinating on voting because I still can't decide. I was all set to vote yes, but then DeLong says no, and I noted that the Solar energy people are against it too, and several of my friends. But yeesh! Everyone else I trust is for it. But it's so complicated. This is why I hate propositions. If you ever hear of me starting a proposition that could just as easily go through the legislature, throw wet noodles at me or something. I like to vote no on anything I don't understand on principle, but sometimes tricky groups use that to override legislative work in some sneaky way. Maybe I should start a proposition against propositions!
Monday, November 07, 2005
An FBI Agent Gets To Decide What I Can't Talk About

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly highlights a Washington Post article about National Security Letters. Drum posts the excellent graphic which should be reproduced as a poster and plastered in public places. Here's my marked up version:

(Click on the image for a larger version.) (Update: I made the clicked-on version even larger.)

To summarize: under the Patriot Act, the FBI can present entities--individuals, libraries, companies, non-profits, universities, hospitals, banks--with a letter--a secret letter! that the presentee can never metnion to anyone ever again!--requiring them to share records they have about a person's banking, purchasing, correspondence and reading. They can then collect that information and keep it forever. The person they are collecting information on never need be informed (indeed, cannot be informed!) and does not need to be any kind of foreigner or terror suspect.

Naturally the thing that immediately catches my eye is that if you get served with one of these letters you can't tell anyone. Ever. Which might explain why we have no substantial allegations of misconduct or misuse. (Today's Genius Award goes to Sen. Pat Roberts, (R) Kansas.)Then there's this--no judge, jury, or even prosecutor need be involved in issuing a letter that causes your private information to divulge--just an FBI bureaucrat. The information doesn't get deleted. The information can be shared with private entities. And you may never know that it's been collected.

Right. Go read the article.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Read Army Captain Yee's Story

I don't know how I missed this Times of London article from about a month ago, by U.S. Army Captain James Yee. He's the American Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantanomo who was arrested and held as a spy before all accusations were dropped and an honorable discharge granted--but not before his marriage and family was ravaged. While this is obviously only his side of the story, the fact that the Army couldn't even get its act together to present its side of the story in any effective fashion at trial makes his tale pretty damn credible. And even more deeply disturbing.
Sometimes I wondered if I would go crazy trying to deal with the situation and being locked in solitary confinement for what turned out to be 76 days. If it were not for my military training and my religion, perhaps I would have. . . The army was doing far more harm to me privately. Martha Brewer, an agent with the Department of Defence Criminal Investigative Service, went to my apartment near Seattle and told Huda, my wife: “Your husband is not the person you think he is. He’s having an affair with three women.” . . .On November 25, with no serious charges in sight, I was suddenly released from custody. But the same day news bulletins announced that I was being charged with adultery (a criminal offence in the military) and with downloading pornography on a government computer. By revealing the new charges on the day of my release from prison, the army had captured the story. . .In February last year my lawyers reached a deal with the army that the criminal charges would be dismissed and I would resign my commission with a recommendation for an honourable discharge from Miller and other senior officers. Even so, the military continued to whisper that I was indeed a threat to the nation but it was somehow in the interest of security to drop the case against me. Miller found me guilty of adultery and possessing pornography and formally reprimanded me. Two months later — by which time my case had become a cause celebre — I won an appeal against his decision.
You really should just read the whole thing. And before anyone goes off about how much better we are then country X, Y, or Z -- don't even go there. I expect better of my country and my government. This is unacceptable. Knee-jerk apologists are the most useless kind of citizen.
Friday, November 04, 2005
Prisoner's Dilemma

Sorry about the protracted absence, various projects and holidays (happy late Diwali everyone) are keeping things a bit hectic.

Snarkmarket is 2 years old and 1000 posts old today, so I thought I'd link to a post from them: Matt gives us the head's up on a Crooked Timber post--apparently the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country, both in absolute terms and per capita. I'd like to get a sighting on North Korea's per capita terms---in some sense you could say the whole country is rather prison like---but that does jive with what I know about our justice system. Land of the free indeed.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Happy Halloween!

So tonight I stayed at home and treated the little children who came by, and it was quite delightful. There's something magical about having a talkative 4 year old Snow White come over and articulate exactly why her neighbor friend's costume is so scary when you recall her first trick or treat as a babe-in-arms. Part of me regretted not venturing into the Castro tonight, but after hearing that one friend lost her super duper expensive camera in the mob, I feel less regretful. I went for a much mellower Castro stroll on Saturday night, and got a few impressionistic shots. Here's the flickr album. Here's my own costume, which is part of a set. It's very conceptual. Imagine me being much taller, more masculine, more plush, with less black and more golden stripes, and my friend Scott being shorter and blonder. Look at my hands and imagine claws. We are, clearly, headed towards the Yukon.

This was Scott's idea but anyone who shared my freshman or sophomore year with me will not be surprised to learn that I jumped at the idea. This, by the way, is a huge shoutout to all my friends from the first two physics classes at Berkeley, Physics 7a& 7b--balcony crew, fignewton, Society of Mad Hatters at Cal, kids in the front who originally hated us but later partied with us, Helene, Jason, Hana, Mia, and of course Bruce Birkett, all of you--wherever you are, and whenever you may find this, here's to many happy chuckles shared in LeConte and a lifetime of exploring. Go Bears!
Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com


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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Dave Barry
The Bellman
Mine's On The 45 (Brimful)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Combing the Sphere
Crooked Timber
Daily Dose of Imagery
The Daily Rhino (Bong Breaker)
Dark Days Ahead
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
Geeky Chic 2.0 (Echan)
Green Ink!
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
India Uncut
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Scott Rosenberg(
Rox Populi
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman

Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece

Photo Blogs
Daily Dose of Imagery
Alexandra Huddleston
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

Literature, Fiction and Entertainment
Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud

A Note on Comments
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A note on permalinks
I find that a lot of people don't know about permalinks. When you want to have someone read a specific blog entry, then you should find that blog entry's permalink, click on that, and send them the resulting browser address. Otherwise they will just be sent to the blog in general, and between your reading the blog entry and your correspondent's or audience's getting to it, a whole slew of material may have pushed the entry off the front page. In this blog, the permalinks are the timestamp at the end of the entry. (Feel free to frequently send your friends and family permalinks from my blog!)

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