Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who’s Afraid of Megan Fox?

For reasons not entirely clear to me, Megan Fox has in the last several years ascended to “it girl” status.


I don’t get it.  I mean, yeah, she’s beautiful, but beauty isn’t exactly hard to find among working actresses.  Yet somehow, Megan Fox has become our blogring’s reigning standard of female pulchritude.

Why?  By what standard is Megan Fox really more beautiful than this woman:


This isn’t even my favorite shot from Betty Draper’s visit to Rome.  My favorite shot is when she smiles, and her sparkling countenance lights up the . . . well, sound stage, probably, but the point is, I would pick January Jones over Megan Fox every day of the week and twice on Sunday, yet she never gets the buzz that Fox gets.

This isn’t just a face vs. body issue, BTW.

The Consequences of Failure

Lost amid the hubbub surrounding The End of Men was a quote from another Atlantic article from that issue

Sitting in the café [in Antananarivo, Madagascar] with an espresso and a mille-feuille, [former Stanford economist Paul] Romer could see young men, stunted from malnutrition, watching over the cars parked in front of the hotel, hoping for a few tips. A portly European of a certain age walked by with an attractive young Malagasy woman on his arm, and the men outside the hotel stared. The look on their faces expressed all that needed to be said about global inequality.

Working Women Cause Divorce

I know that the Prince of Darkness already reviewed this article in detail, but I wanted to highlight one passage anyway:

Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher sees the rise of working women as a cause of women asking more from marriage, but she's not worried.

"Women have always commuted to work to gather fruits and vegetables, and for millions of years women were just as economically, socially and sexually powerful as men. ... Data suggest that many ancestral men and women had two or three spouses across their lives," she wrote on The New York Times' Room for Debate blog.

"The same occurs today: I have examined divorce patterns in 58 societies and everywhere that spouses have some independent means, both sexes leave bad marriages to make better ones."

Put me down in favor of social arrangements that don’t lead to women abandoning their husbands.  But at least we’re not disputing the facts of the case anymore.

College Dropout Factories

Steve points to a Washington Monthly article about one student’s experience at Chicago State:

It was money—or the lack of it—that determined where Nestor Curiel chose to go to college. The third of six children in an immigrant Mexican family, Nestor grew up in Blue Island, a gritty working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side . . . .  Nestor, a polite twenty-one-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, graduated from Eisenhower High School with a 3.6 GPA and dreams of becoming an engineer. (As a child he was inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries about engineering marvels, and he also enjoyed helping his dad repair automobiles on weekends.) . . . .

Nestor was an above-average high school student who generally made the honors list, and he was diligent in his non-school hours as well, holding down a part-time job as a busboy and line cook at the restaurant where his father worked. His ACT score was 18, equivalent to about 870 on the SAT, which wasn’t high enough to gain him admission to a selective college.

I hate* to point this out, but money was the least of his worries.  Selective colleges happily subsidize poor minorities who show the least bit of potential.  But that 870 SAT score tells admissions committees that Nestor’s 3.6 GPA doesn’t mean what the Washington Monthly thinks it means.

And engineering?  The university at which I used to teach didn’t accept students with less than an 1100 SAT score.  (It might have been 1000 for athletes; I forget exactly.)  I taught some of those 1100 students our department’s core course they needed for a BS and watched as they struggled with even a non-calculus treatment of pretty basic concepts.  I would despair at the prospect of getting them through a full engineering curriculum, and they had SAT scores 200 points above Nestor’s.

While I admire people who know their way around the inside of an automobile engine (I do not), it’s not the same thing as engineering.  But so what?  Automobile mechanics make decent money:  my next door neighbor back West did automobile body work and managed to afford a house in our neighborhood.  So why not encourage students with 870 SAT scores to pursue lines of work suited to their abilities?

Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.

Nestor is certain that the two years at Chicago State put him behind. In his first semester at UIC, he failed a math class, finding it difficult to match the faster pace and heavier workload. (He retook the class, however, and passed.)

Okay, first of all, if he’s still taking math, then he didn’t actually finish his pre-engineering credits.  And second, Nestor’s entire academic experience put him behind, not just his two years at Chicago State.

It’s easy to make fun of the Washington Monthly’s obtuse treatment, but the subject they address is an important one:  colleges like Chicago State take their students’ (usually borrowed) money while not even trying to give them anything close to a decent education.  As the article’s contrast with North Carolina Central University demonstrates, other colleges perform much better in ways that can’t seem to be accounted by demographic factors.  Here is Chicago State’s profile at CollegeResults.com, contrasted with NCCU’s profile.   NCCU doesn’t appear to be a diploma mill:  it’s salary data among actual graduates is on par with that of Chicago State.  But that said, NCCU’s graduation rate of 48% isn’t representative;  most schools in its tier have graduation rates in the 30s.

* I lied.  I love pointing this out.  That’s why I write a blog, dummy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

How can you tell that your nation has been conquered?

Today’s Lone Nut:


Tragically, this is barely a joke.

I went through customs at Dulles on the way back from Iceland.  The travelers were divided into a “citizen” line and a “non-citizen” line.  As you would expect, there were many times more people in the citizen line, yet both lines had the same number of screeners:  three.  This is out of about a dozen kiosks each that could have made the wait less than 90 minutes had they actually been staffed instead of sitting empty.

But get this:  the non-citizen screeners actually worked faster than the citizen screeners!  So naturally, the non-citizens were all finished while we, the citizens of our fair republic, were still standing in line.

Lone Nut’s characterization of the screeners isn’t far off either.  I can’t recall seeing any ragheads, but neither do I recall seeing any white men either.

The indignities of occupation multiply.

Friday, August 27, 2010

ChristianityToday.com: Defenders of Whatever

In the comments to the last post, Trumwill wrote about agenda-driven entertainment:

The really preachy stuff with a sermon at the end with music playing is not nearly as successful as shows that more thoroughly investigate issues and then gently guide you to the conclusion, being interesting and entertaining the whole way.

I would submit as a generality that propaganda makes bad art.  There are exceptions of course; Philadelphia succeeded artistically even though it was transparently pro-homosexual agitprop.  But usually, propaganda hit pieces suffer the fate of Rendition and disappear without a trace.

The converse question – does good art make more effective propaganda – brought to my mind the movie Bridge to Terabithia.

BtT, faithfully adapted from the Katherine Paterson’s Newbury medaled book, concerns two children: a boy, Jess, from a working class churchgoing family; and a girl, Leslie, from an upper-middle class family with no apparent religious convictions.  The two children use their imaginations to turn a stretch of woods into an enchanted forest with magical creatures.  The young boy, in particular, uses this fantasy world to help him cope with various stresses at home and school.

The subject of religion comes up in the movie when Leslie attends church with Jess’s family.  Leslie finds Christianity to be aesthetically pleasing but dismisses the idea that God would send anybody to hell.  Later – SPOILER ALERT – when Leslie drowns while attempting to visit the enchanted forest alone, Jess seeks assurances from his father that Leslie wouldn’t really go to hell, and his father replies that she would go to heaven for being a good person.

Now, on the one hand, BtT is obviously pushing a universalist message contrary to orthodox Christian teaching.  On the other hand, the movie’s handling of the subject was as fair as one could reasonably expect.  A sympathetic character accurately presents the doctrine of Original Sin, and – to my ears – presents it far more compellingly that the sentimental rebuttals.  Jess’s father is a rough, practical man who mocks his son’s artistic ambitions, but these are in context more attributable to class limitations rather than religion.

So the question is, does BtT “thoroughly investigate issues and then gently guide you” to a universalist position?  Does it do so effectively? 

To answer this question, I turned to ChristianityToday.com and found three articles that discuss the movie.  While these articles discuss the film’s artistic merits and compare it to the children’s book, nowhere do they raise the issue of its universalist advocacy.  (This isn’t just me being hypersensitive:  here is a liberal website that had no trouble getting the point.)

While I am glad that Christian art criticism has come a long way from when it merely counted episodes of sex and violence, I’m not sure what use it is if it can’t spot instances of heterodox theology.  I can appreciate that, given Paterson’s background (she was the child of missionaries to China and the husband of a Presbyterian pastor), this was a book and movie that Christian reviewers wanted to like, and indeed they are likable.  But CT.com does a disservice to its readers when its writers either can’t spot or don’t care about a subtext running contrary to the Gospel.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


On a Spearhead recommendation, I saw the movie Kick-Ass on DVD last night.  Based on the trailers, I had expected a family movie in the same genre as, say, Sky High, and invited the family to watch it with me.

Bad idea.

While Kick-Ass does, in fact, have the moral aesthetic of Sky High in the sense of being a campy story about child super-heroes, the visual aesthetic is much closer to The Matrix.  But even The Matrix comparison doesn’t quite capture Kick-Ass’ absolute level of sex and violence; for that, maybe Scarface would be the better.

Yet somehow, the contradictions work, which says a lot about the way well-executed movies can use context to desensitize us to murder and mayhem.  In Kick-Ass, we get to watch, among 50+ other deaths, the 11-year-old heroine use a katana to impale a young woman begging for her life.  I’m disturbed that I wasn’t disturbed.

On Peter’s recommendation, I read the Neal Stephenson novel The Diamond Age and thought, “I so want to see this movie!”  (The SyFy miniseries is still in development hell.)  But I also thought that we would need to make the Chinese girl army a little older.  Really, twelve-year-olds?  Who would believe that?  But perhaps Kick-Ass shows us how it could be done.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Are Prole Kids Bigger?

I was struck recently by the observation that teenaged males of the lower socio-economic classes seem to be larger than the teenaged males of the upper socio-economic classes.  Not fatter necessarily, and not larger in a weightlifting gym rat kind of way either.  They just seem to have more mass about them.

The GSS data (and by the way, isn’t the GSS just the absolute coolest policy nerd website ever?) is mixed.  Middle and upper class males tend to be over-represented among respondents of average weight, but otherwise no clear pattern emerges.  (Among women, in contrast, the data is nigh linear:  whether measured by WORDSUM, DEGREE, or CLASS, a woman’s weight drops as her intelligence, education, and social class improves.)  The GSS only surveys adults over 18, so it doesn’t really help answering the question directly.  There is the possibility that class differentials in sexual selection account for differentials in size, but I would expect to see the pattern among adults as well as children.

Some possibilities:

  • My generalization is without merit.
  • Behaviors over-represented among lower-class teens – manner and body-language – leverage greater body mass more effectively than do middle-class behaviors, making the mass more noticeable.
  • For reasons we don’t fully understand, intelligence and age of puberty are inversely related.  Lower-class parents give birth to lower-intelligence, faster maturing children who, at any given age between 11 and 17, will be larger than their more intelligent, slower maturing upper-class peers.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sex Ratios in Church: Φ does the GSS

In the comments to my post on, inter alia, different levels of spiritual maturity between men and women, Trumwill suggested church attendance as a measurable proxy for spiritual maturity and pointed to GSS data showing substantially higher numbers of women attending church weekly.  In the context of our discussion (dating and marriage), I was keenly interested to see what the ratios were for what I considered the personally relevant demographic:  college educated whites in their twenties.

To that end, and for the first time, I have attempted to generate my own GSS results at this site.  In the interest of full disclosure, and to give my readers an opportunity to correct any errors I might have made in the use of the GSS, I have reproduced below the results of my query in their entirety:

SDA 3.4: Tables

GSS 1972-2008 Cumulative Dataset

Aug 22, 2010 (Sun 12:12 PM PDT)
Role Name Label Range MD Dataset
Filter AGE(22-29) AGE OF RESPONDENT 18-89 0,98,99 1
Filter DEGREE(3-5) RS HIGHEST DEGREE 0-4 7,8,9 1
Frequency Distribution
Cells contain:
-Column percent
-Weighted N
SEX 1: MALE 50.1
2: FEMALE 49.9
Color coding: <-2.0 <-1.0 <0.0 >0.0 >1.0 >2.0 Z
N in each cell: Smaller than expected Larger than expected
Allocation of cases (unweighted)
Valid cases 15
Cases excluded by filters or weight 51,427
Cases with invalid codes on
row or column variable
Total cases 53,043

My intention above was to compare the sex of respondents (ROW) with whether or not they had attended church in the last 7 days (COLUMN).  I filtered the data, considering only white respondents between the ages of 22-29 that held a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD.

The reason I think I made a mistake is that, according to this page, only 15 of 53,043 respondents met the filter criteria (or the “weight variable”, whatever that is) and also answered the church attendance question.  Fifteen!   Hopefully, someone can tell me how to tease out a larger sample.

That said, if my results are representative, then they indicate equal numbers of men and women attending church every week among white twenty-something college graduates.  Which means that neither men nor women seeking spouses of appropriate spiritual maturity are going to enjoy any special advantages at the others’ expense.

The bad news, sociologically speaking, that this data imply is that white working class men have left (or been driven away from) the church in significant numbers.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Funnies: Daddy Longlegs

Gave me a giggle:

· Stories about children and their views of the world are always touching.


· A father watched his young daughter playing in the garden.

· He smiled as he reflected on how sweet and pure his little girl was.

· Tears formed in his eyes as he thought about her seeing the wonders of nature through such innocent eyes.

· Suddenly she just stopped and stared at the ground.

· He went over to her to see what work of God had captured her attention.


· He noticed she was looking at two spiders mating.

· 'Daddy, what are those two spiders doing?' she asked..

· 'They're mating,' her father replied.

· 'What do you call the spider on top?' she asked.

· a DaddyLonglegs,' her father answered.

· 'So, the other one is a Mommy Longlegs?' the little girl asked.

· As his heart soared with the joy of such a cute and innocent question he replied, 'No dear. Both of them are Daddy Longlegs.'

· 'The little girl, looking a little puzzled, thought for a moment, then lifted her foot and stomped them flat.

· 'Well", she said, "that may be OK in California , but we're not having any of that shit in Minnesota.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Christian Dating Advice Industry

Making the rounds is this article from Christianity Today:  “The Good Christian Girl: A Fable”, by Gina R. Dalfonzo.  The fable provides a useful summary of the varied and often conflicting advice that “Christian Dating” experts give to young people:  show interest – let the guy take initiative; don’t be too picky – don’t compromise your standards; etc.

I think the writers and speakers should start by being candid:  life is hard.  And to paraphrase John Wayne, life is exponentially harder if you’re fat, or ugly, or stupid, or – for men – short, or poor, or aspergery, or worst of all inexperienced.  None of the options such people face will likely be good; no amount of macro-level strategizing is going to make selling a low SMV especially easy.

I would push back against this comment though:

I have this suspicion that men think that if they see a woman and think she’s attractive, the woman somehow automatically knows and it counts toward her inner mental count of male interest.  For many women, however, short of a definitive action such as being asked for her number or out on a date, the woman will never know.

Okay, but I can’t personally conjure, even in hindsight, some unexploited trove of females to whom I was attracted who would have looked favorably on my romantic attention.  It’s true that I didn’t ask girls out absent a reasonable expectation of an affirmative response; it is also true that I have no actual evidence my threshold for that expectation was other than where it should have been.

On a related note, an otherwise sound article by Mark Regnerus has this:

Evangelicals make much of avoiding being unequally yoked, but the fact that there are far more spiritually mature young women out there than men makes this bit of advice difficult to follow. No congregational program or men’s retreat in the Rocky Mountains will solve this. If she decides to marry, one in three women has no choice but to marry down in terms of Christian maturity.

One in three?  Really?  Defined how?  More importantly, measured how?  Because absent rigor, “spiritual maturity” can become an empty vessel into which women pour whatever alpha qualities they expect but don’t think they’re getting, providing a socially acceptable basis on which to run down the single men in their Sunday School class.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Heretical Thought about Education

Circulating in my brain is the notion that the astronomical graduation rates achieved by elite universities (99+%, even among NAMS) are only partly a function of their extraordinarily high admission standards and the supportiveness of their educational environment.  The balance of that achievement is brought about by grade inflation:  classes at elite universities aren’t as academically demanding as comparable classes at your local community college.  Arguing in favor of this is the empirically observed phenomenon that, controlling for academic portfolio, students who begin their academic careers at the community college are less likely to obtain a four-year degree than those who proceed directly to the elite institution.

However, this conclusion appears inconsistent with the observation – also empirically demonstrated – that affirmative action admits have lower academic performance, lower graduation rates, and worse post-graduation prospects than those that enroll in institutions with students whose academic portfolios more closely match their own.  If the first conclusion were true, then NAMs ought to benefit from the lower academic standards of the elite university, even if the Jewish students surrounding them are significantly brighter.  Alternatively, the extent to which they don’t benefit seems to argue that, in fact, the elite students really are working hard for their degrees.

How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory conclusions?

Possibility #1:  The classroom standards are lowered for NAMs at elite institutions, just like the admission standards.  I would think this difficult to pull off university-wide.

Possibility #2:  NAMs only take courses of study (e.g. education) with lower standards.  This is almost certainly true, but it’s true everywhere as far as I know.

Possibility #3:  The data concerning lower outcomes for AA admits is drawn from a much deeper pool of universities than just the elite.  I imagine that if you are Harvard, you can lower your standards for NAMs and still enroll sufficiently bright students to excel in even rigorous classes.  Affirmative action only becomes problematic for NAMs at schools like Georgia Tech, who have to dig deep into the IQ distribution for their AA admits.  But then, the community college data is drawn deeply as well.

Possibility #4:  There are negative yet unmeasured background factors among students who self-select to attend community college even though they qualified for four-year colleges that  hinder their prospects for success.  In contrast, the NAMs who self-select to forego AA have neutral or positive yet unmeasured background factors that improve their prospects for success.  This seems to be the only model that actually explains the apparent inconsistency, yet it also is the least generalized.

Your thoughts?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teleportation Reconsidered

While reading Steve’s reflections on the pace and progress of technology, I was struck by an aspect of teleportation that never seems to get any play when it’s portrayed in the movies.

In the future, we will supposedly see the crew of the Enterprise replace conventional travel with “beaming” about.  As near as I understand it, transporter technology involves the disintegration of the traveler at the departure point, the transmission of either his atoms and molecular map or his molecular map alone, and the reconstitution of the traveler at the destination point, either from “his” original atoms or from from a stock of atoms kept at the destination for this purpose.

The problem is that I don’t see how the traveler’s consciousness thread survives this process.  Yes, a reassuringly lifelike facsimile of Capt Picard may appear in the transporter room, complete with his memory and personality.  But that will be of cold comfort to the original Capt Picard, who is . . . disintegrated, and presumably off to whatever the afterlife has in store for him.  In all the decades and re-imaginings of  Star Trek, I can think of only one episode in which this problem was even touched on:  when TNG crew discovers that a copy of Commander Riker that had reflected off the ionosphere (or something) during a beaming and stranded him for decades on some godforsaken planet.  Much sanctimonious moralizing ensues.  But never did anyone raise the matter that Riker’s original consciousness thread inhabited at most one of the Rikers.

This same problem bedevils efforts to copy a person (as in The Prestige) or download a person into a new body (as in Avatar).  Sure, this process helps everyone around the subject feel warm and fuzzy (or not) about having him around.  But I can’t think of a materialistic model by which our consciousness thread is other than bound to a specific instantiation of our physical brains.

Bonus problem:  does the post-transporter, reconstituted copy of a person have a soul?

As a traducianist, I would argue no.  Which pretty much explains the characters on TNG, come to think of it.  But I suppose a creationist could go either way on the question.

Extracurriculars and College Admissions

In a string of posts reacting to the Espenshade, et al. finding that elite universities discriminate against white middle and working class applicants, Half Sigma asserted that they have it coming because they don’t participate sufficiently in extracurricular activities.  As I commented, this assertion struck me as implausible based on my own experience as a middle-class college applicant back in the mid-80’s.

As it turns out, Espenshade draws from the ETS’s Student Descriptive Questionnaire to address this issue.  It turns out that while there is not much difference between SES groupings in athletic and academic extracurricular participation among elite college applicants (as measured by the National Study of College Experience), there is a difference in three other categories of extra curricular participation:

Performing Arts
Lower 28
Working 47
Middle 68
Upper-Middle 65
Upper 48
Community Service
Lower 39
Working 81
Middle 83
Upper-Middle 76
Upper 74
Part-time Job
Lower 16
Working 45
Middle 41
Upper-Middle 33
Upper 13

The generalization appears to be that extracurricular activity peaks among middle-class applicants to elite colleges.  A similar pattern emerges when looking at leadership positions and awards in extracurricular activities.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Environmental Romanticism

Once upon the time, conservation as exemplified by such as Teddy Roosevelt was about improving the quality of people’s lives.  It sought to ensure that people would be able to enjoy the beauty of nature.  Likewise, the early environmentalists wanted people to enjoy clean air and water, and vistas unspoiled by garbage.

Nowadays, of course, environmentalism has been about the critters for their own sake, and is specifically anti-human.  There are shades of this latter strain in E. O. Wilson’s recently published novel, Anthill.  Raphael Semmeses “Raff” Cody, the novel’s protagonist, travels as a boy with his parents to Lake Nakobee, an isolated tract of undeveloped land known only to a handful, and apparently visited by almost nobody.  It is a testament to environmentalism’s earlier successes that the critters endangered by its prospective development are all bugs*, notably the various warring ant colonies along its banks.  Not a single cute, huggable mammal among them.

Ultimately, though, Raff is a moderate.  He recognizes that his romantic attachment to his boyhood hideaway is not sufficient to get anyone else to care about Nakobee.  So he successfully proposes a development plan that involves a smaller number of more expensive houses, further spaced, leaving most of the land as a nature preserve.

Of course, any good novel needs a villain, and as you might expect, Anthill casts Christians in the role.  These range from the developer executive ranting about how Christianity requires them to be against the environment (somehow the populist argument about building homes for middle-class people never gets made) to a shadowy rural pastor who tries to kill Raff because . . . well, actually, the novel never really explains why.  Likely Wilson and his editors thought that the kind of people likely to read Wilson would nod along at the idea that murder is something that rural pastors just do.

To Wilson’s credit, he appears to appreciate how off-putting actual environmental activists can be.  While a law student at Harvard, Raphael encounters Gaia Force, a group of poseurs who’s notion of protecting the environment is violent socialist revolution.  They angrily expel Raphael, having no truck with his goal oriented, work-within-the-system approach to establishing this particular nature preserve.  Raphael wants to try various mediating strategies that allow development in the context of conservation, but the response he receives shows why so many conservatives sometimes sound as if they don’t care about the environment:  to do so would put them in league with the likes of Gaia Force.  I remember the exact moment when the environmental movement became prominent on my college campus:  it was the same autumn that the Berlin Wall came down.  It was apparent to me that, once socialism had been exposed for the hoax that it was, all the socialists simply moved over to environmentalism as a proxy for the same agenda.

On the other hand, developers suck too.  Raphael’s Uncle Cyrus speaks truthfully about the ambition to turn the Mobile – Pensacola corridor into a sprawling megalopolis.  Indeed, the lust of developers extends along the entire Gulf coast.  Tellingly, Cyrus asks Raphael, “Do you want this area to stay redneck heaven forever?”  But that’s the problem.  I have a passing familiarity with the ongoing efforts to ram a new airport down the throats of the voters in Panama City.  I’ve always been skeptical about its advocates’ promises of development.  I can understand the interest hotel owners in Panama City Beach have in increasing the tourist traffic; what I don’t understand is, how is this supposed to help the people that live there now?  Will they be able to afford the new homes that will be built?  Will they qualify for the jobs brought in?  Or will they rather be alienated by the influx of immigrants with different values, eventually driven from their own communities?

Steve Sailer asked why conservatives wound up on the same side as developers in conflicts over the environment.  If I had to answer that, I would say that conservatives were responding to the difficulties faced, not by developers (who apparently find it easy to overcome environmental objections), but by individual property owners who want to make modest improvements.  (Granted, I haven’t read any stories about this in a while.  I bet I could find them in the Reason archives.)

In summary, while Wilson is a good-enough storyteller, I was somewhat disappointed.  I was hoping to read an insiders account of the political and legal environment in which developers and environmentalists operate.  Unfortunately, Wilson is not that insider.  His book is much more about his own personal vision than how the world usually works in real life.

* Yes, I understand that, entomologically speaking, “bug” is a specific category that normally doesn’t include ants.  I just don’t care.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

DOM for Dummies

The extensible markup language, or XML, is an HTML-like textual data format that encloses various data values, or “content” inside tags that identify the data called “markup”.  These files can be parsed using a set of commands called the Document Object Model, or DOM.

MATLAB supports DOM.  Suppose you have an XML document that reads in part:

  <channel normalize="true" shape="gaussian" name="Channel #1" >
    <polarizer type="none" />
    <dataoutput type="total" />
  <channel normalize="true" shape="gaussian" name="Channel #2" >
    <polarizer type="none" />
    <dataoutput type="total" />

etc.  You wish to pull out the list of all the values – 0.3734, 0.3829, etc. – between the <center> tags in the file “example.xml”.  Here are the MATLAB commands you would use:

xExample = xmlread('example.xml');
xCenter = xPlatform.getElementsByTagName('center');

Unfortunately, the variable xCenter is a DOM construct, not the values you want.  To actually get the values and put them into an array values, a little more processing is order:

for i=0:xCenter.getLength-1,
    values(i+1) = str2num(xCenter.item(i) ... 

Notice first that the indices into the array xCenter.item begin at zero; thus, if there are ten channels with values under the <center> tags, the elements of xCenter.item would be indexed 0 thru 9.  This is in defiance of the usual MATLAB rule that indices start at 1.

Notice also that the values returned by the method getFirstChild.getData are text strings, not numeric values.  To use the numeric values, we must apply MATLAB’s str2num() function.

XML files can get pretty complex, and the DOM is therefore also complex.  As a novice to XML parsing in MATLAB, figuring out the syntax of the above lines took a couple of hours.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Φ Buys a Palm

Smarting at the prospect of prospect of paying $65/week for something that the Hilton Hawaiian Village should provide for free, dammit!, I called Verizon.  I knew they had a number of wireless options, including PC cards and stand-alone wireless hotspots, and although I suspected these would also be expensive, I wanted to at least find out what their terms were.

Verizon charges $40/month for a PC card, plus the cost of the card itself.  I don’t remember what the data limit is, but I suspect there isn’t one:  for reasons I won’t go into, my office is running its entire network off of one of these cards.  For $60/month, I can get a hotspot (the hotspot itself costs $50, I think).  Obviously, neither of these options would make any more sense than the $65/week.

But then the Verizon customer service representative offered me the Palm Pre Plus.  Although Verizon normally offers this phone for $50 with a 2-year agreement, I had a $50 credit towards a new phone with Verizon, so the Palm would essentially be free.  It’s a Smartphone, so it must be used with their $30/month data plan . . . but there is no obligation to keep the phone activated.  When I get back to flyover country, I can return to my Razr and cancel the data plan.  (I don’t have an ongoing need for a Smartphone, so this works out well.)  The best part of about the Palm is that it is apparently the only Smartphone with which Verizon offers “tethering” – connecting a computer to the internet via the phone – free for up to 5GB per month.  Data usage using the phone itself is essentially unlimited, but like all Smartphones the Palm doesn’t have a Flash player.  That means no Netflix and Hulu unless you are tethering, and 5GB would only get you, what, maybe a feature film and a half?

Let’s talk about the phone itself.

The first thing that needs be said is that the battery life is horrible.  My Razr runs for days on a single charge; the Palm, in contrast, dies in about half a day, probably because of the massive heat it seems to throw off.  To its credit, the Verizon salesman was up front about this aspect.  So you definitely want to get a car charger and keep a wall charger or USB connection wherever you know you’ll be stationary.  It takes a relatively long time to charge the battery; I’ve only managed to return it to full strength during an overnight charge.

The second Palm disability is that the GPS has a long sync time.  Although I didn’t have any prior experience with GPS to speak of, I knew that getting the initial fix was not instantaneous.  But the Palm took so long to establish my correct location (as opposed to an estimated location based on cell tower triangulation) that I initially thought it wasn’t working.  I was demonstrating this failure to an iPhone user who was able to get a position fix in about a minute; meanwhile the Palm was taking 15 – 20 minutes.  The worst part about this is that the Palm doesn’t tell you when the position it is giving you is the estimated fix or the GPS fix, and while the phone ostensibly allows multitasking, the GPS fix is lost if the user moves to another application.

The third strike against the phone is the slow data transfer rate.  I’m loading a 1.5GB video into the phone’s memory via USB cable as I write this; the transfer looks like it will take a full hour.  I’m pretty sure that movies transfer into the Touch a lot faster, although I have forgotten the exact time.  A further aggravation is that all other features (calls, browsing, etc.) are suspended during data transfer.  Come to think of it, all these functions must be used singly:  placing a call, for instance, suspends internet connectivity over the tether.

I don’t have any experience with Smartphones, not counting my Touch, but that said, nobody does OSs like Apple.  The Palm interface, while not impossible,  is also not intuitive in the way the Touch interface is, so be prepared for a steeper learning curve than you may be used to.

The Palm has a 3.2 megapixel camera with something called an “LCD flash”.  The phone automatically syncs contacts with Facebook and gmail, but not with with your old phone; this requires you to first download your contacts to a .csv file and then upload them to gmail.  The phone’s performance as a hotspot is solid over Verizon’s network.  The palm has a physical keyboard, which would be fine except that it slides out from the narrow end instead of the wide end.  This makes it more difficult to use than in ought to be.

Bottom line:  you get what you pay for.  This isn’t my dream phone (which hasn’t been invented yet), but it’s a good low-budget travel phone for people who only need wireless internet when they’re out of town and who can keep it plugged in most of the time.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Hilton Hawaiian Village: Good news if you like getting bent over with your pants around your ankles.


Here are some of the prices you can expect to pay if you ever stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village:

  • $24/day for parking.  ($30/day for valet parking).
  • $15/day for internet service.  (You can buy a week for $65 for the “basic” service and $85 for the “premium” service.
  • $5.95 for a bowl of cold cereal.
  • $6.25 for a 12oz. can of coke.

But the extortionate pricing was just the beginning of my complaints.  The HHV was crowded.  The common areas of the hotel were inadequate to give a peaceful experience to the people who wanted to use them.  Good luck getting a chair at the swimming pool, especially the swimming pool with the water slide.  Speaking of which, the requirement that my nine-year-old. has to wear water wings on their itty bitty water slide is absurd.  For one thing, she’s a good swimmer; for another, she’s ridden all but one of the slides at Blizzard Beach without water wings; why water wings on these? 

It’s the middle of Asia’s summer traveling season and most of the guests were foreigners.  I’m pretty sure the staff at the hotel were all LEPs.  Frankly, people spoke better English in Iceland.

To its credit, a lot of the detailing in the rooms was well done.  But the beds we had were doubles, not queens – and try sharing a room with a six and nine year-old with jet lag who don’t like sleeping together.  The balcony was especially pleasant, giving us a great view of . . . well, of that $24/day parking garage actually, but from the 26th floor or so it was a nice place to get some quiet.

All told, the experience was so unpleasant that we actually did something we had never done in the middle of a vacation:  changed hotels.  We walked over the Hotel Across the Street and found a world apart:  quiet, spacious common areas; reasonably-priced restaurants, queen beds in the rooms.  It was everything the HHV wasn’t.  Mrs. Φ and I looked at each other and said, “Why are we not staying here?”  Fortunately, they had space, so we packed up and spent the second half of the week at the HATS.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Agnostic on the Girlfriend Gap

Via Ferdinand (NSFW), a study by Agnostic on the nexus between real estate prices, political leanings, and the difficulty finding a girlfriend:

The Spearman rank correlation between the percent of young guys who've never had a girlfriend and median home value (for owner-occupied units in 2004) is +0.73, very high for the social sciences:


The housing data are from the recent housing bubble, but most of the increase in never having had a girlfriend occurs in the lower part of the home price spectrum. By the time you look at super-expensive states, diminishing marginal returns have set in: the guys there are basically as likely to never have had a girlfriend than those just below them in home prices.

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The NGO Economy

Via Megan, this post at Friends of Ethiopia echoes some of my own thinking.  Consider, for a moment, the frankly devastating impact on American manufacturing of WalMart’s ability and willingness to dump tons of cheap Chinese crap onto the market.  Now imagine the effect it would have if that crap was actually free.  Our industrial, technological, and retail sectors would be annihilated.

This is essentially what NGOs are doing in Africa:  dumping tons and tons of free stuff into the African economy, destroying in the process any incentive for the Africans to produce anything themselves.

That said, I’m not especially sanguine about Africa’s prospects under any scenario.  The people I know who have lived in Africa tell me that Africa is the place where nothing works, and NGO policy isn’t going to change that.

Candidly, I’m not especially upset about this.  Seeing as how elite opinion watches indifferently the slow-motion ethnic cleansing of African whites in South Africa and the fast-motion ethnic cleansing of whites in Zimbabwe, I can’t think of a reason why I should care one way or the other about the fate of the non-white Africans.  But for those who do, this should be something to think about.

Friday, August 06, 2010

“House Conservatives”: Livin’ Large on the Liberal Plantation

I received an email from a congressional candidate eagerly trumpeting his endorsement by an outfit called the House Conservatives Fund, an organization “committed to conservative principles and building a majority of conservative members in the House of Representatives.”

The first red flag was found in its list of donors.  I have my doubts that the telecom, banking, and pharmaceutical behemoths sending money to these guys are supporting conservatism in the abstract.  But why are they taking contributions from congressional campaigns?  Shouldn’t they be contributing to the campaigns of the candidates they endorse?  Or is the HCF actually selling endorsements?

The second red flag was found on the HCF issues page:

America is a nation of immigrants, and House Conservatives do not feel we should shut out those individuals legally seeking a better life for themselves and their families. However, maintaining border control is critical to our national stability and security. House Conservatives will continue address the pressing problem of illegal immigration and examine what can be done to curb the harmful effects upon our nation.

Sweet Mary and Joseph!  I’ve been following Republican Party Pusillanimity for a good while, but this has got to be the worst statement on immigration from any candidate, Democrat or Republican, that I’ve ever laid eyes on.  It is, in fact, so metaphysically, bone-bendingly stupid that I can only hope that the HCF doesn’t understand the plain meaning of the words coming out of its own website.

Where do I start?  There are 6.3 billion people in the world.  Five billion of them are poorer than Mexicans.  Would the HCF really admit all 5 billion of “those individuals legally seeking a better life for themselves and their families”?

Oh, but they’re in favor of border security.  So do they support a fence?  Attrition through enforcement?  E-verify?


They want to curb the harmful effects of illegal immigration, not, you know, actually stop illegal immigration.

Sorry, but this brand of conservatism is designed to not upset the liberal status-quo.

My recommendation is to take a critical look at the candidates the HCF has endorsed and carefully parse those candidates’ statements on immigration.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bowfin Babes

I’ll be blogging about this conference trip soonest; in the mean time, here are some pictures that Mrs. Φ (really!) took aboard the USS Bowfin:




You’re welcome!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Mad Men, Season IV: Disappointments

I watched Episode 1 off the DVR at 3 am this morning (jet lag; more about it later) and I have several disappointments. I realize that not every episode would match the dramatic force of the Season III finale, but that wasn't really it. What bothered me were the inconsistencies. Don Draper, for instance, does several things that would have been out of character in previous seasons:

  • Hires a prostitute. Don never needed to do this before.

  • Acts out a fetish with said prostitute. Where did this come from? We've never seen Don interested in kinky sex.

  • Gets grabby with a date. Don has never before lost a seduction.

  • Storms out on a potential client. Don has always kept his professional cool with clients.

  • Gets judgmental with said client. Don has always been aloof from the moral implications of both the products he sells and the means he uses to sell them. But when a "two piece" bathing suit maker is concerned about competition from "bikinis", Don derides them as prudes. This is especially ironic considering that Don himself objected to a swimsuit that Betty was wearing back in Season II.

On the other side, the character development that supposedly took place last season is missing. We had been lead to believe that Don's relationship with Peggy Olsen had reached a better equilibrium, yet here he goes off on her in a particularly humiliating way. (Granted, she deserved it for being a bonehead. Still . . . .)

I was also disappointed with certain aspects of the story. After hollowing out the old Cooper-Sterling, Draper and his renegades should have seen their original offer to buy back the company accepted, and at much more favorable terms. Obviously, it was not. Why not? If OCS survives, I would have enjoyed seeing how its personnel were getting along. Will Ken Cosgrove and Paul Kinsey still make appearances? And I hope we will start receiving updates about Joan's relationship with her husband.