Thursday, December 30, 2010


I hate those blog posts that say sorry the blogging has been sparse lately . . . but sorry the blogging has been sparse lately.

Two weeks ago, I accepted a job offer in New York City. Since then, I've gotten an apartment in the East Village and packed up my stuff in Albany. I'm very excited about the new job and the new neighborhood. I spent over a year looking for this, but in the end, I really couldn't have hoped for things to have turned out better for me.

I start the job today, and I'll be going back to Albany tonight in order to move my stuff downstate. On New Year's Day, I'll finally be living again in the city where I was born, and where I belong.

There was also a nice Christmas vacation in the middle of all that. So, things have been pretty hectic, and I haven't been focusing on the blog.

I might not be blogging much in the next week or two either, since I'll still be getting settled in. But I'll be back.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sitting around listening to Christmas presents

We're playing the remastered version of the Beatles' Revolver. My stepdad reacts to George Harrison in "Love You To": "He sounds so enthusiastic: 'I'll make love to you, if you want me to . . . Or, if not, I'll just play my sitar . . . '"

Friday, December 24, 2010

What would you do if you got hundreds of letters to Santa at your address?

The New York Times might as well be begging bloggers to embed this saccharine mini-documentary today, and I'm happy to oblige:

"I think if you're going to do one, you should do 'em all. Or, none at all. I don't know, is that weird? . . ."

"That to me is like saying, 'Oh, well, I can't fix all the world's problems, so I'm not going to fix any of them.'"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The secret to a (subjectively) long life

Be constantly bored. The time (and thus, your life) will seem to pass more slowly.

IN THE COMMENTS: My mom suggests an even better way: "chronic excruciating pain."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Facebook world

1. A map of the world made up entirely of glowing lines that symbolize Facebook friend connections. (More explanation here.)

2. A sign of the times: one friend writes to another on Facebook:

What did you change your profile picture to raise awareness for?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Corporate environmentalism

So, I have a CVS card. (For non-US readers, CVS is a pharmacy/store.) CVS wants to give me $1 every 4 times I shop there using my own bags, since this saves plastic bags. But they won't record these transactions on my normal CVS card. They'll only give me the discount if I buy a new card that looks like a green leaf. So I can show how much I care about the environment with my superfluous piece of plastic.

In fact, I just checked that webpage to see if they mention the material of the leaf card. They say it's "made with corn-based material — an annually renewable resource." So they're trying to cue us to feel like using too much corn isn't an environmental problem because it's "annually renewable" — never mind how much energy is required to produce the corn. (Michael Pollan says that corn "is the SUV of plants. Growing it the way we do requires it to guzzle fuel in the form of fertilizer, about a quarter to a third of a gallon of petroleum for each bushel.")

This is what happens when corporations try to "go green." Corporations aren't content simply to help the environment out of the goodness of their hearts; they need to come up with a way to signal how green they are. Then, they have an ulterior motive to prioritize that signal, while downplaying any environmental costs.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Music Friday: My favorite Christmas song

"Sleigh Ride" seems to be most popular in versions with sumptuous female vocals — here's KT Tunstall:

Inevitably, there's a jazz version by Harry Connick, Jr., overflowing with panache. He leaves in a whole section that Tunstall leaves out ("There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray . . .").

(Is that Dwight Schrute standing up in the back at 2:15?)

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones give it their virtuosic bluegrass-jazz treatment:

(Did you catch the bassist Victor Wooten's wink at an even more famous Christmas song near the end?)

The original version brings out the brilliance and harmonic adventurousness of the piece (performed here by the Boston Pops):

That version was composed by Leroy Anderson (a master of orchestral candy) in 1946. Mitchell Parish added the lyrics a few years later. Though the title and orchestration make it clear that Anderson did envision a horse-driven sleigh, Wikipedia tells us that he "had the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"A democratic society needs Republican scientists."

So says this Slate article, which complains that only 6% of American scientists are Republicans. (55% are Democrats.)

The author, Daniel Sarewitz, argues:

For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation? . . .

How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation? First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology.
Sarewitz concludes that the United States "needs Republican scientists," but by his own account, we already have them: 6% of scientists. That's a lot of people. Why doesn't Sarewitz make any attempt to look at some of these scientists' work and explain how they've made a distinctive contribution that non-Republican (Democratic, independent, or apolitical) scientists wouldn't have made?

Does the New York Times really expect us to believe . . .

. . . that Sarah Wendell is embarrassed to be seen in public reading romance novels, when she clearly agreed to pose for that photo in the New York Times?

It reminds me of scenes on The Real World where two characters would have a "private" conversation about something they were desperate to keep a secret from their other housemates. If they had actually wanted to keep anything private, they wouldn't have agreed to have their lives broadcast on MTV.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Professor Robert Summers of Cornell Law School

Professor Robert Summers taught his last class on December 1, marking the end of 42 years of teaching at Cornell Law School. Before that, he taught at the University of Oregon Law School.

Here are some of his many accomplishments, from the article at the link:

Summers is perhaps best known as co-author of the Uniform Commercial Code (West Publishing Co.), written with James J. White in 1972 and now in its sixth edition. The four-volume treatise on the rules that coordinate the sale of goods and other commercial transactions throughout the 50 states is the most widely cited on the Code, which has been adopted by all 50 state legislatures. . . .

In 1993 the Russian government called on Summers to help draft that country's new civil code. He later served as adviser to the Drafting Commission for the Egyptian Civil Code (1998-99) and as principal drafter for the Code of Contract Law for Rwanda (2006-10). . . .

In the 1960s he began advocating for more minority students in law schools, holding summer sessions around the country . . . to recruit and prepare minority undergraduates.

"That was one of the largest, most satisfying public service activities I have ever been privileged to engage in in my life," Summers said. "It was extremely inspiring."
Wikipedia says:
He is well known among Cornell Law School students for his inquisitive, spirited use of the Socratic method in instruction.
That's putting it mildly. That sentence would describe many Cornell law professors, but Summers took the Socratic method to the extreme. He rarely made any direct statement about anything, almost always preferring to ask questions instead.

He mockingly voiced the way he thought students would react:
Isn’t it a pity that you need to analyze cases? You can’t just go around with your mouth open waiting for a spoon that will feed it to you in one big, luscious bite! Students should sue. The teachers should just give you the law.
A student piped up:
We're working on a class action.
The article quotes Summers giving a more straightforward rationale for his teaching method:
"It teaches the students analytical focus, verbal adroitness and articulateness, and it keeps them on their toes," he said. "You've got to hold their feet to the fire."
He had an inimitable style of speaking: self-consciously erudite and even antiquated, often quite stern, but also wryly comical.

Over the summer before our first year, the law school had all of us incoming students read Franz Kafka's novel The Trial so we could discuss it at orientation. Per Wikipedia, "it tells the story of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime never revealed either to him or the reader." In the middle of contracts class, Summers would suddenly attack Kafka:
In very few walks of life can you see the power of human reason when it's at its best — as it is in well-reasoned judicial opinions. In other words, this is not a course that Kafka would recognize. Kafka couldn't possibly see that there was any rationality to the law.
He added sarcastically:
So it's a wonderful thing for the law school to select such an inspiring book for law students to read.
Summers would urge us to write down everything that was said in class. I know that many people look down on this technique (calling it the work of a "stenographer"), but I found the advice useful. On one occasion he started to scold us for not taking notes, but then he seemed to have a flash of sympathy for us:
I see a lot of you just relaxing and not taking notes. These hypos are important. Of course, relaxation is important too!
He ruthlessly mocked judges who wrote opinions he considered irrational. After reading one such opinion, he said:
We would want to be very wary of any majority decisions written by Lindberg, J., if they purport to be contracts case. It might not be a problem if it’s a tort case, because torts is really simple. It’s just: one person bumps into another person!
(Yes, he referred to the judge as "Lindberg, J." This is the standard legal notation, meaning "Judge Lindberg." Summers is the only person I've heard pronounce the "J." as written.)

Summers was a scholar of jurisprudence and felt strongly about the subject, so he would go off on delightful philosophical tangents while we were in the middle of analyzing a contracts case. Here's one I tried to type out close to verbatim in my notes:
Is certainty important from the point of view of justice, legal predictability, treating like cases alike? Do the materials that law students are now studying have a tendency to dull your sensitivity to the value of certainty? Indeed, does Friedman [the author of a passage in our casebook] give law professors a pretty hard time here?
A student responded, reading from the casebook:
“In a complex social and economic system, a legal system on the model of appellate cases selected for law school instruction would be insupportable.”
That line was particularly ironic because not only were we in law school, but Summers edited the casebook and presumably chose to include that passage.

He elaborated on the point:
You have a steady diet of borderline cases. Is this bending up your mind? Is this having the effect of dulling your sensitivity to the 7 major values of certainty in law? If you’re getting accustomed to life on the borderlines — that's what you're in, life on the borderlines — could that have a prejudicial effect on the general standards that you have with regard to what the law is like? And you just take for granted that the law will be open-ended, spongey, discretion-ridden? Some of you do think there’s value to predictability, determinativeness. There are probably not just 3 ways in which it’s valuable, but probably about 15.
(Summers often referred to imaginary numbered lists.)

He went on:
Does certainty facilitate citizen self-direction vs. being ordered around ad hoc by judges and other officials? Does determinativeness limit judicial power, and thus reduce the scope of judicial arbitrariness? Does determinativeness contribute to dispute avoidance? That would be a bad thing, because it would reduce the number of jobs you can get, and that would reduce the number of law professors. What I’m doing is sowing the seeds of self-destruction. So maybe I better shut up.
On another day in class, we read a passage by a former Cornell law professor named Ian MacNeil. Summers said:
MacNeil was a whale of a law professor! Never uttered a declarative sentence! Never uttered a declarative sentence! Not in 35 years! Best law professor we've ever had! Now he's retired. What a mistake that was. What a mistake that was.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Are juries more sympathetic to male or female criminal defendants/victims?

Psychologists at Penn State surveyed 458 people about how they'd vote if they were on a jury in a hypothetical case where a defendant was accused of killing his/her lover "in the heat of passion" after being thrown out of their house and discovering that the lover was cheating. The researchers described the case with 4 different possible gender configurations: male defendant/female victim, female defendant/male victim, both male, and both female. Miller-McCune reports:

Test participants were given “jury instructions” stating the defendant was charged with second-degree murder. They were given the option of convicting the defendant on that charge, going with a less-serious charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or finding the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

To parse out levels of ambivalence, the researchers asked participants to rank, on a 1-to-7 scale, the extent to which they find the defendant guilty. They were also asked to choose an appropriate sentence length, from no prison time to 15 or more years behind bars. . . .

Heterosexual female defendants were given significantly shorter sentence lengths than either heterosexual male defendants or homosexual defendants. They also scored lower than any other group on the question “To what extent do you find the defendant guilty?” And they scored the highest in terms of satisfying specific legal elements that would justify a voluntary manslaughter verdict, such as great provocation and mitigating circumstances.

“The findings from this study suggest heterosexual female defendants are more likely to benefit from using the provocation doctrine in a crime-of-passion case,” the researchers conclude. While straight women appear to be “just as likely to be convicted as all other defendants,” their punishment — at least to the extent it is determined by the jury — is apt to be less severe.

These findings seem to corroborate the conclusions of University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus, who has argued domestic violence is often looked at as less serious if it is perpetrated by a woman. Specifically, Ragatz and Russell found that “violence perpetrated by heterosexual female defendants toward their unfaithful partner was perceived as more acceptable than violence perpetrated by male or homosexual defendants.”

The study can also be interpreted to support . . . the notion that defendants receive harsher sentences when the victim of a crime is female. The researchers noted that “both heterosexual male and homosexual female defendants were found more culpable if the victim was female. Whether the female victim was heterosexual or homosexual did not appear to impact decisions.”

Either way, the results suggest gender-related beliefs play a major role in jurors’ decision-making processes.
Why is there so much less interest in the criminal justice system's possible gender bias than in its possible racial bias?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks reveals the left's incoherence on U.S. foreign policy, secrecy, and diplomacy.

Good points:

By and large, the hard left in America and around the world would prefer to see the peaceful resolution of disputes rather than the use of military force. World peace, however, is a lot harder to achieve if the U.S. State Department is cut off at the knees. And that is exactly what this mass revelation of documents is going to do. The essential tool of State Department diplomacy is trust between American officials and their foreign counterparts. . . . Destroying confidentiality means destroying diplomacy. . . .

[T]hose on the hard left are usually the loudest critics of America imposing its own values, its own way of doing business, and its own culture on other countries. For better or worse, in many parts of the world there’s a big difference between what government officials are prepared to do publicly and what they’re prepared to say and do privately. We may wish it otherwise, but those are the realities faced by U.S. officials. The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private. By respecting that difference, American diplomats are doing their job.
That whole TNR article is worth reading.

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Penelope Trunk's manifesto against "happiness" and "positive psychology"

"I want to help people find conflict and self-doubt."