Friday, March 26, 2010

Second Thoughts

I've never found a way to go back and do anything over.  What's done is done.  But I wish I hadn't allowed my bad mood last night to make me sign that Facebook petition.  This is the one that says:

SIGN THE PETITION ON FACEBOOK: Tell the Republican Party to STOP Inciting Tea Party Racism!

Doing this has gotten me into several uncomfortable conversations, and I'd like to clarify my stance.  Also, I started getting fan posts from the group that originated it, and I find I don't agree with them on a lot of points; I'm no longer a "fan."

I don't actually claim that the Right, as a group, is "racist." I do claim, I think justly, that certain people who publicly identify themselves as "the Right" have acted in a way that most people would consider racist. I consider shouting "n*gger" at a black Congressman, and "f*ggot" at Congressman Barney Frank, outside the halls of Congress, to be racist and bigoted (and incredibly discourteous) acts, and I'm appalled by it. 

And I haven't even gotten to the bricks thrown through various Congressmen's windows, for the crime of passing a health insurance reform bill; or the propane gas line someone cut, at the address published as belonging to another Congressman.  The address and the propane line turned out to belong to the Congressman's brother, who has 4 kids under the age of 8; it could have killed them all.

What really appalls me is the fact that nobody in the Republican Party hierarchy - and for that matter, nobody in whatever hierarchy the Tea Party has - has stood up and said publicly, this is not the behavior by which we want to be identified. Not even (unless I missed it overnight) Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who, dammit, IS black! I have to assume this IS the behavior by which they are, at least, willing to be identified.

I'm incredibly sick of both sides screaming invective at each other instead of talking. Give me some of those old time politicians, like Tip O'Neill and Lyndon Johnson (not to mention California's immortal Jesse Unruh), none of whom ever screamed invective at anybody.

And while I'm on the subject, I know whom I blame for the total decay of civility in politics over the last 10 years or so.  You may not recognize the name; he stays much in the background.  But I blame Rupert Murdoch.  Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News.  Fox News commentators Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck - and now Sarah Palin - make a lot of money for Mr. Murdoch by encouraging their listeners to think in violent, apocalyptic, one-sided terms.   Check out Sarah Palin's chart of Democratic seats she wants to "knock over", marked on a map with - gun sights.  These Fox News commentators are rabble rousers; and boy, have they successfully roused them.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Single Number

Why is the human race so fascinated with single numbers for evaluating things?  The classic is "your IQ number" - a single number that's supposed to sum up "how intelligent you are."  Leaving out all the extended (and valid) criticisms that IQ tests are culturally biased, Stephen Jay Gould made it clear (in his book The Mismeasure of Man, 1981) that "your IQ number" is an artifact of the mathematical methods used to analyze the scores from IQ tests.  The researchers could have chosen to use a multivariate method that returned several scores - they chose to go with The Number.

Look at your credit score.  Whether you can get a loan or a new credit card depends on The Number, compiled from your financial history by Fair, Isaac & Co.  A whole industry of financial advice has grown up to teach people how to "tweak" their FICO scores, because of the influence of that Number.

Probably the most devastating Single Number we've had to deal with recently was the output of the Gaussian Copula formula developed by David X. Li (see Felix Salmon's Recipe for Disaster in Wired Magazine, 2/23/09, for a detailed analysis).  As the article will explain in probably more detail than most of you want to read (I still recommend it), Li's formula produced a single number that allowed traders to estimate the risk of default on extremely complex financial debt instruments.  It didn't, as it happened, account for all the possibilities - specifically a broad fall in overall house values.  But most of the people who used it to guide their day-to-day trading didn't understand it well enough to gauge its limitations.  It was quick and easy to use, and it gave them The Number.  And here we all are.

We do this all the time.  It's a regular habit.  I don't know if it's because we're intellectually lazy (most of us are, of course), or because we have a mystical faith that "the experts" must be right.  But we'd be much better off if we questioned these Numbers more closely, and perhaps didn't assume that they are an absolute guide to The Truth.  The idea that you can get The Truth from a single Number is just - too good to be true.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't Make Me Keep Repeating Myself

So in this morning's news, three Americans were shot and killed in Ciudad Juarez.  They worked for the U.S. Consulate there.  The Washington Post says the FBI, the DEA, and other inhabitants of the alphabet soup are down there trying to figure out why.  

I can tell you why.  They got across the Mexican drug gangs somehow, that's why.  And why are the Mexican drug gangs so nasty?  Because of all the money they want to make, selling marijuana and cocaine to rich (by comparison) addicted Americans, whose country is stupid enough to consider being addicted to chemicals a crime instead of a medical problem.  Stupid enough to allow alcohol and nicotine to be sold legally to adults but to throw people in jail for a small amount of crack or Mary Jane.  The "reefer madness" folks are destroying the country of Mexico by keeping this stuff illegal here.

This isn't new information, people.  We did this before in the 1920's.  We made alcohol illegal in 1920, and in the 13 years before we came to our senses and legalized it again, the bootleg trade turned the United States into one big shooting gallery - the kind with bullets.  Albert Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity; what does that make the "war on drugs"??  The war on booze created a lucrative black market, and the bootleggers shot up each other and everyone else in a war for control of the money.  Has the war on drugs done anything different?  No.  Then why are we still doing it?

The last time I ranted about this, it was only Al Qaeda.  ("Only" Al Qaeda!  Yikes!)  Al Qaeda is one of the biggest drug dealers in the world.  They are shooting up, in partnership with the Taliban, the entire country of Afghanistan, which we, I point out, are trying to return to civilization and the rule of law.  How are they supporting this full-scale war effort??  With the proceeds of the opium trade, which they are selling, in part, to - us.  (Some of their heroin goes to Europe, yeah; but some comes here.)  That in itself is stupid enough.  But Afghanistan is on the other side of the world.  This mess on the Mexican border, that's our neighborhood - and it's only a matter of time before we start finding beheaded corpses on American side streets.  

The only answer to this is legalization.  All of it.  Every damn mushroom, herb and chemical.  All of it legal, all of it regulated by the FDA, all of it taxed (we could use the revenue), and on sale at Walgreen's.  Or in specialty stores.  There is no profit in the drug trade if you can buy the drugs over the counter in the corner store.  After 1933 when booze was legal again, the crime didn't go away - crime never goes away completely - but the bootleggers went out of business, and it dropped way back.

Am I in favor of addiction?  Certainly not.  And it would be morally imperative for us to use some of the law enforcement dollars we'd get back, when the cops don't have to arrest everybody who has couple of joints, on education and rehab.  Is addiction good for a society?  No.  But some low level of addiction, dealt with as a medical, public health problem, would be better than what we have now.  We are one of the biggest markets for illegal drugs in the world.  If we legalize everything and regulate it, we will take the profit out of the trade. And the trade will go away if it isn't profitable. 

We'd still have problems with teenagers.  We have problems with teenagers and booze now.  That's the nature of teenagers.  But our insistence on classifying drug use as a moral failing, as a crime, instead of as a medical problem, is killing us.  In Ciudad Juarez today, it's killing us literally.

Friday, March 12, 2010

I'm being published!

This is mildly amazing to me.  Late last year, the Cal Alumni Association group on LinkedIn sent out a call for submissions - the Association plans to publish a literary anthology of stories about student life at U.C. Berkeley, written entirely by U.C. alumni.  Authors had to attend after 1960 - they only want stories since 1960.

OK, I attended Berzerkeley during that period - I was there from September 1963 through December 1968.  So I decided to write up my memories of the Free Speech Movement.  I drafted the account, pared it down under 700 words as required, went over it a few times, and - sent it off.  That was the day after Christmas.  Checking my email archives, I see they told me originally that they notify me "by the end of the month" - of January.  I didn't hear from them, and it slipped my mind.

Today, I got an email from the coordinator - they've accepted my piece!  I'm going to be published in an actual book, with pages and covers!  I'm not getting paid for this, but what the hey.  I've sent back the signed Contributor Agreement - now to sit and wait for a publication date.  I guess I'm an author.

Random memories of New York

Checking some incidents in my travel diary, I found this note from one of our subway trips, which I just have to share verbatim:

Our trip down was enlivened by a young man (18? 23?) who spent the entire trip tying his yellow Spongebob Squarepants tie in a full Windsor, without bothering to button his collar or tuck in his shirttail.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children's Libraries

Joyce Carol Oates' reminiscences of her childhood in upstate New York contained many memories of the library in the neighboring county, where she had a library card courtesy of her grandmother.  I remember a library like that when I was a child, with the children's room downstairs, and the adult library, up the stone staircase, accessible only with written permission from one's parents.  This was the Goodman Library, now the home of the Napa County Historical Society.  The Goodman Library and the Lockport Public Library had one thing in common:  neither was a Carnegie.  The Lockport Library was built by the WPA, and the Goodman was designed by a local architect in 1901.

The photo on the web site was taken on a bright sunny day, but if you look at the architecture of the Goodman Library, you'll realize why my memory word for this building is "dark."  The photo is carefully cropped, but there were buildings right next to the library on either side, and the windows in the front faced more north than anything else, so direct sunlight in the building was rare.  Ms. Oates mentions the smell of her library, but I don't remember the Goodman smelling of anything but dust and old paper.  I worked as a librarian for 17 years, and I don't recall ever using "library paste"!

When I was between 7 and 12 years old, I shuttled back and forth to the Goodman on my gearless Schwinn bicycle every 2 weeks, the number of books I checked out limited by the capacity of the bicycle basket between the handlebars.  The 1950 Census data shows that the city of Napa in 1950 had 13,579 residents, 98% of them "in households."  Traffic on the city streets wasn't heavy, and stop lights were few, even on Jefferson, then as now the main north-south route through town, although then there was no freeway alternative a few blocks to the west.  My route this time was up E Street to York Street, right to A Street, right again on Jefferson and across the creek.  From there I had a choice of routes, but I usually crossed Jefferson onto Calistoga, Polk, or Clay and then cut across to the library, rather than going all the way down to 1st Street; even then I preferred back routes, and I still do.

Looking at Google Maps for downtown Napa, I see the "Napa Old World Inn Bed and Breakfast," right in the bend of Jefferson Street, across from Calistoga.  In fact, there's quite a collection of B&B's in that area.  What I remember from that area is the basement apartment where my grandmother lived, right on the bend.  This was what we now call a "soft story" house, a three story stick Victorian with a garage on the first floor, next to a wooden staircase climbing a full story to the porch and front door.  Sometime in the early 1950s (Grandma Ivy died in 1957, when I was 11), my parents decided that a house containing them and 2 children under 10 was too small also to contain two grandmothers - one somewhat deaf, the other annoyed by loud noises.  So they arranged for the grandmothers to move to small, separate, apartments elsewhere in town; and Grandma Ivy moved into the converted garage, after MUCH persuasion from Dad.  She fussed and fumed that she was being "kicked out" - and then she discovered that she was alone for probably the first time in her entire life, and she loved it!  I remember the concrete floor, from my visits - our house had a wooden floor, so a concrete floor was very unusual.  And cold.

But I digress - I was talking about libraries.  I don't really remember the children's library at the Goodman very well, though I know I used it; because as soon as I could persuade Mother, I got permission to climb the stairs and use the adult collection.  Those were daunting stairs (the place had at least 10 foot ceilings) for a 9 year old kid to climb.  The psychological barrier of putting the adult collection upstairs was immense (in addition to giving the librarians a choke point to control access!).  But I climbed them, and discovered Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alexander Dumas and all sorts of other fascinating authors.  This was before libraries put plastic covers on books, so the covers of the books in my bicycle basket were always a little scuffed; I rarely read new books, and I still rarely read new books.  If a bestseller is still considered "interesting" ten years after publication, I may consider it.

Oddly, this dislike of new books is why I rarely go to libraries any more, although I always vote for library funding.  Libraries have to carry the new books and they only have so much room; so if you like older authors, as I do, you have to collect them yourself.  My collection of early-to-mid 20th century detective stories is better than any library's I've seen in recent years.  Also, of course, libraries now can barely keep their doors open.  We are cutting our own throats, as a democracy, if we restrict access to public libraries.  I wish I thought we would wake up and realize this.