Archive for May 2013

At Least I Don’t Have To Cop To Yale

May 30, 2013

This is going to be a rooting-for-injuries post, I know, but reading this made my happy from within a pool of wince:

To get to Yale, you effectively must pass through a fifteen year funnel. No company can match that kind of screening rigor, so why not leverage it? From a company’s point of view, it would be dumb not to. (Also, think about it this way — if you are a high school senior with a choice of any school, and therefore one of the smartest in your class, will you choose Yale or a state school? I parenthesized this because it’s a straw man argument, but do consider that financial barriers to the Ivy League are basically non-existent nowadays.) Yes, you can get qualified candidates from other schools. But your chances of getting a “lemon” candidate from Yale are, I presume, much lower than getting one from another school.

That’s from a Yale student responding to Tom Friedman’s column in which he asserted that

[Employers] increasingly don’t care how those skills were acquired: home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale. They just want to know one thing: Can you add value?

 

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Now, as many of you have probably already guessed, Friedman’s column is business-as-usual for the MOU. It is interesting to Friedman-observers mostly for its wrinkle on the taxi-driver standard.  This time, the material for the column comes from Friedman’s daughter’s former Yale (sic!) roommate, the co-founder of what seems to be an out-source skills-vetting operation of the sort businesses used to do for themselves.  Slightly fancier identifiers, then, but the same trope: someone Friedman happens to know holds the secret key to explain some huge public issue.

Friedman also manages to avoid grappling with the basic logical problem that flows directly from his claim that “jobs are evolving so quickly, with so many new tools, a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job.”  In such a circumstances specific skills may well be less significant than a capacity, however demonstrated, to acquire new competences as needed.*  I’m not asserting that as truth (I haven’t done the work needed to speak intelligently about hiring and workforce issues), but it’s basic (honest) argumentation to take on the strongest counters to your claim, and not simply assume your way past any inconvenient difficulties.

But, as I said, this is a pox-on-both-sides moment.  And I guess I have a personal rooting interest.  Harvard — and by extension those identified with or credentialed by the place — has had a bad run lately, what with the troubles within their economics shop (Alesina-Ardegna, Rogoff-Reinhardt); the Kennedy School (Jason Richwine’s Ph.D) general folly (the cheating scandal and the following e-mail search scandal)…and whatever else may be laid on the doings at the Kremlin on the Charles.    As some of y’all may have twigged, I’ve got Harvard on my resume — I earned my (one and only) degree there back when we still used our number 2 chisels on our slates, and I feel at least a bit personally angered and embarrassed by that (partial) list of folly and worse.

But at least for this morning, I don’t have to wallow in Harvard’s slop.  Instead, I’m enjoying the billowing scent of unexamined entitlement wafting up from New Haven.  For which, Mr. Anonymized Yalie Blogger, my thanks.

*Not to mention the dead give-away of the passive voice in that sentence “a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered…” Really?  Not saying that it’s not — I haven’t read any studies that may exist nor spoken to hiring executives at the range of places that would allow one to make such an ex-cathedra statement.  But again, I’d like to see something more than MOU’s say-so, if you know what I mean.  Or to be clear:  this is an instance of the failure of high-profile punditry.  This is essentially unforgivable intellectual sloth, enough to render the entire column meaningless.  But the Times seems unable or unwilling to ask their resident pooh-bahs to defend what they claim up to the level I would expect of anyone I teach past their freshman year.

Image: Limbourg brothers, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March (Labors of the Month), between 1412 and 1416 and circa 1440.

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We Are Stardust

May 29, 2013

Via Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer), this gorgeous view:

CentaurusA_LRGB_120hours_3215x2406-X3

This picture of the active galaxy Centaurus A was made by Rolf Olsen, an amateur astronomer in New Zealand.  I can’t do better than Plait does in explaining why this sight is not simply beautiful, but astonishing:

The detail is amazing, and you really seriously want to embiggen it; I had to shrink it a lot to fit it on the blog. Going over the details at Olsen’s site just amazed me more and more.

First and foremost: He took these images with a 25 cm (10”) telescope that he made himself. That’s incredible. A ‘scope that small is not one you’d think you could get this kind of image with, but persistence pays off. It took a total of 43 nights across February to May of 2013 to pull this picture off.

Centaurus A is  a very interesting object — the product of galaxies in collision, it has a massive black hole gobbling up stuff in its center.  As Plait notes (with awe!), Olsen with his very modest-sized home-made telescope was able to resolve the tell tale jets that the black hole produces (see Plait’s piece for the close – ups).  I’ve done a little bit of star gazing, and I worked with Tim Ferris on the development of his Seeing in the Dark film — a kind of love note to the amateur astronomer community, so I have some sense of the skill and sheer stamina of those folks who spend night after night staring up.  And even with that as context, I can say that what Olsen does here is truly impressive.

So enjoy. Stare at that image (do hit the link for the big version — and check out Olsen’s gallery).  Note that in the shock of collision you likely get ramped-up star formation.  In star formation, you get planets.  With enough heavy elements (i.e., enough generations of stars aborning and flaming out), you get the basic chemistry of life.  Not saying there’s anyone looking back…but (allowing for the time lag)  you never know.

Consider this a cosmic open thread.

Image: Rolf Olsen, 2013, used by permission.

Reality Bites

May 29, 2013

Credit where credit is due:  an  an elected Oklahoma Republican is making sense:

All of the new Oklahoma laws aimed at limiting abortion and contraception are great for the Republican family that lives in a gingerbread house with a two-car garage, two planned kids and a dog. In the real world, they are less than perfect.

I see your problem here, but do go on:

As a practicing physician (who never has or will perform an abortion), I deal with the real world. In the real world, 15- and 16-year-olds get pregnant (sadly, 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds do also). In the real world, 62 percent of women ages 20 to 24 who give birth are unmarried. And in the world I work and live in, an unplanned pregnancy can throw up a real roadblock on a woman’s path to escaping the shackles of poverty.

Gustav_Klimt_Schwangere_mit_Mann

But what about those who don’t live where you do?

Yet I cannot convince my Republican colleagues that one of the best ways to eliminate abortions is to ensure access to contraception.  [via]

Kudos to OK Rep. Doug Cox.  He is — as his op-ed makes clear — no fan of abortion.  But he’s pretty damn blunt on both the what actually happens in the world and he’s on the right side of the argument on the basic right of individuals to make their own damn decisions.  So good on him; he’s the kind of opposition we need if a two party system is ever to function again, and he’s absolutely right on the practical and moral value that comes from treating women and girls as actual autonomous…you know…people.

One more thing — I was going to call Cox a bit of a naif for this:

What happened to the Republican Party that I joined? The party where conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater felt women should have the right to control their own destiny? The party where President Ronald Reagan said a poor person showing up in the emergency room deserved needed treatment regardless of ability to pay? What happened to the Republican Party that felt government should not overregulate people until (as we say in Oklahoma) “you have walked a mile in their moccasins”?

But, follow the jump, and you’ll see that Cox has no problem handling the concept of a rhetorical question:

Is my thinking too clouded by my experiences in the real world? Experiences like having a preacher, in the privacy of an exam room say, “Doc, you have heard me preach against abortion but now my 15-year-old daughter is pregnant, where can I send her?” Or maybe it was that 17-year-old foreign exchange student who said, “I really made a mistake last night. Can you prescribe a morning-after pill for me? If I return to my home country pregnant, life as I know it will be over.”

Yup, Representative Cox.  You got it right.

Too much reality doth not a good Republican make.

Image:  Gustav Klimt, Sketch outline pregnant woman with man1903/4

For a Good Time on the Intertubes — Today!

May 22, 2013

It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.

This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.

Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.

Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.

Brueghel,_Pieter_I_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1596

The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question.  What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances.  Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table.  A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too.  Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear.  So what to make of that lacuna?

Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth):  If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear:  human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going.  And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind:  if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?

We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way.  Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths.  See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the  the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.

So come on down.  Listen live or later here.  Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.

Texas, Jake

May 22, 2013

How’s this for a catch 22:

A judge has ruled that a North Texas lesbian couple can’t live together because of a morality clause in one of the women’s divorce papers.

The clause is common in divorce cases in Texas and other states. It prevents a divorced parent from having a romantic partner spend the night while children are in the home. If the couple marries, they can get out from under the legal provision — but that is not an option for gay couples in Texas, where such marriages aren’t recognized.

This is another one of those laws in which both rich and poor are enjoined from sleeping under bridges:

[Texas District Court Judge] Roach said the clause doesn’t target same-sex couples, adding that the language is gender neutral.

“It’s a general provision for the benefit of the children,” the judge said.

Cassatt_Mary_Jules_Being_Dried_by_His_Mother_1900

And, of course, the husband’s attorney talks the same line — we’re only in it for the kids:

Paul Key said his client, Joshua Compton, wanted the clause enforced for his kids’ benefit.

“The fact that they can’t get married in Texas is a legislative issue,” Key said. “It’s not really our issue.”

Just remember:  the state can’t touch our guns (or require tornado shelters) because of freedom…but adults’ private decisions about whom to love must suffer the full brunt of state power.

Feh.

Image: Mary Cassat, Jules Being Dried by His Mother1900.

 

Don’t Even Think About Being The Coolest Person On (Above) The Planet…

May 12, 2013

…that slot is taken:

Tip o’ the hat to Commander Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadlfield) aboard the International Space Station.

Political Correctness Wins Again ;)

May 10, 2013

I’ve a few things to get off my chest following the news that I got via Dave Weigel, that Dr. Jason Richwine, our favorite race(ist)/IQ/no-Latino-immigrants need apply scholar aca-hack, has “resigned” from the Heritage Foundation.  Richwine, recall, was the co-author of Heritage’s now roundly ridiculed immigration study released earlier this week.

George_Romney_-_Refugee_Group_-_Google_Art_Project

Weigel asked what Heritage knew and when they knew it about Richwine’s dissertation and public statements asserting his race-IQ connection.  Heritage declined to reply, but earlier in the week, Heritage vice president of communications Mike Gonzalez posted a disclaimer that read, in part, like this (via):

The dissertation was written while Dr. Richwine was a student at Harvard, supervised and approved by a committee of respected scholars. The Harvard paper is not a work product of The Heritage Foundation. Its findings do not reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation…

It falls to Heritage to answer (to itself, perhaps?) the degree to which Richwine’s views were the reason he was hired…but as to whether they knew about them before they brought him on board?

There really are only two choices here.  Either they didn’t, and the folks that hire over there are so incompetent that it might be wise to remove all silverware more dangerous than spoons from the staff lunchroom.

Or they did…and to the limits of inference, they sure did know what was behind door number one.  Why do I say this?  Because of what Richwine tells us in the acknowledgements to his dissertation:

I am indebted to the American Enterprise Institute for the its generous support, without which this dissertation could not have been completed.  In particular, I must thank Henry Olsen, vice president of AEI’s National Research Initiative for bringing me to AEI and supporting my research. The substance of my work was positively influenced by many people, but no one was more influential than Charles Murray, whose detailed editing and relentless constructive criticism have made the final draft vastly superior to the first.  I could not have asked for a better primary advisor.

I take two things from that passage.  First, it reminds us of the degree to which AEI is a dog-whistling race shop — as Charles Murray himself confirms in his  reaction to Richwine’s firing decision to resign:

Thank God I was working for Chris DeMuth and AEI, not Jim DeMint and Heritage, when The Bell Curve was published. Integrity. Loyalty. Balls.

Second, in the real world, anyone who’s done any hiring knows that the person doing the intake finds out what the potential employee did in his last job(s).

Richwine may have been getting his degree through Harvard (and that’s a post for another day) but the attempt to hide behind that institutional affiliation is a text-book baffle-with-bullshit moment.  His diploma may read Harvard, but the work was, by his own admission, essentially part of the AEI pipeline advised intensively by one of AEI’s  best known members.

And here’s the thing: the Potemkin village of wingnut  DC policy shops is not exactly some humongous impersonal word factory.  It’s a village. If AEI has some hot shot graduate student breaking old ground on the inherent wonderfulness of white people, then the folks at Heritage had to have known about all that when the newly  elevated Herr Doktor comes calling for a job.

I mean, you can believe otherwise, and I can’t say for sure…but in my decade or so as a small businessman, I called the last couple of places would-be interns had worked for just to see what I might be getting into.  It strains waaaay past my willingness to suspend disbelief that name-brand purveyors of right wing propaganalysis wouldn’t have done at least as much.

So, is the Heritage Foundation a racist shop?  Maybe. Perhaps. Maybe not — there could be more economical explanations for the determined comforting of the comfortable that is the constant theme of the right-wing policy racket.  And wondering whether the whole place, or Jim DeMint, or even Jason Richwine — excuse me, Harvard Dr. Jason Richwine — is personally a bigot is on some level the wrong issue.

Rather, the proper question is what to do with an institution and a movement who can muster no better arguments, and no better arguers to advance their radical agenda?

At a minimum:  Scorn, ridicule and public humiliation is my prescription…repeat as necessary.

Oh — and serious mobiliation for 2014 and beyond.

Image: George Romney, Refugee Group, undated (before 1802).