Sunday, June 26, 2005

Bloggers are quite understandably having lots of fun ridiculing this unbelievably asinine New York Times op-ed column, in which a Muslim Arab-American Harvard student contrasts her chance encounter with a polite, gentlemanly Al Gore with the "everyday hostility" she claims to endure as a headscarf-wearer in Cambridge, Massachussetts. Sure, it's fun to laugh at the author's sophomoric superficiality, spiced with a pinch of breathless celebrity-fawning, as she smugly pronounces herself "frustrated and angry", and charts her declining "faith in the United States", while watching the news headlines on the televisions at the gym where she works out. But the bloggers' fully justified mockery misses by far the bigger irony in the piece.

The author's "alienation" from "what is supposed to be [her] country", she writes, is partly a product of the "stares" she receives when she wears her headscarf. Now, I'm sure it's no fun for her to be stared at. But why, then, would she also object to "America's conflict with the Muslim world"? After all, she describes herself as "fresh-faced and comfortably trendy", and her encounter with the former vice president takes place in a gym where she goes "just about every morning"--alone. Doesn't she realize what her fate would be as a single woman visiting a male-attended gym, alone, in "comfortably trendy" clothing--with or without a headscarf--in just about any Arab country? Stares, I daresay, would be the least of her worries.

Luckily for her, she lives in America, along with "10 million Arab and Muslim-Americans, many of whom are becoming increasingly withdrawn and reclusive". If she thinks she's entitled to blame her government's foreign policy for making her withdrawn and reclusive, perhaps she should try living for a while in her ancestral homeland, where being withdrawn and reclusive is, for women, a form of self-preservation, not a petulant political reaction.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Where Have All the Frogs and Toads Gone?
According to this article:
Frogs and toads are becoming extinct all over the world. It's the same magnitude event as the extinction of the dinosaurs.
What is the reason?
Toads and frogs are dying out under pressure from the expansion of agriculture, forestry, pollution, disease and climate change, NatureServe said.
In other words, they haven't got a clue.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Canada's Vaunted Health Care System
There has been some confused discussion lately about the issue of private health care in Canada. Canadians are the most confused about this, and they have been ever since most private medical care was made illegal about 20 years ago. In fact, most of them (based on a survey I've done consisting of frequent chats) don't even know that most private medical care is illegal, and the reason they don't know this is because the language used to discuss the issue is so bizarre and obfuscatory.

Instead of announcing that they were outlawing most private medical care, the Canadian government(s) merely announced that they were eliminating "extra billing". "Extra billing" was the practice of a doctor billing the government health plan for a service, and at the same time billing the patient an additional (usually small) amount. If a doctor charges a patient and does not charge the government then this is completely private medicine and should not be called "extra billing". Nonetheless, under the guise of eliminating extra billing, virtually all private medicine was outlawed in Canada. (Fine Print: private medicine that was not claimed to be covered by the government, such as dental work and cosmetic surgery, remained legal. Also, very recently, some private MRI clinics have been permitted in some provinces.) After being used as a subterfuge for outlawing private medicine, the phrase "extra billing" was never (to my knowledge) used again. Instead, whenever the issue arose, it was described as being about "single-tier versus two-tier health care". "Single-tier" was the good thing, the status quo, where every Canadian (except the rich, the powerful, the well-connected, the ...) had access to the same level of health care. No one discussed why two-tier (which should, of course, be called continuous-tier) is okay when it comes to housing, vacations, etc. Outside of Canada, the term "single payer health care" was used to describe the Canadian system, virtually guaranteeing that almost no one would understand the situation.

This article in the New York Times discusses a recent Quebec court decision that kinda says that the government doesn't have the right to outlaw private medical care. Or maybe it says that the government doesn't have the right to outlaw private medical insurance (implying that private health care is already legal, just not private medical insurance). Or maybe it says that it's okay to outlaw private medicine as long as the government provides good public medical care. Actually, I have no idea exactly what the court decided, and the author of the article clearly couldn't care less.

But he does care to tell us that Canada's health care system is "vaunted" and "is broadly identified with the Canadian national character" and that this decision is a "blow to Canada's health system". The fact that "Canada is the only industrialized county that outlaws privately financed purchases of core medical services" is presented as a positive fact about its national character, and no explanation is given about why the existence of private medical care in England, France, Germany, Sweden, ... has not been a blow to those countries' health care systems.

The article tells us that this vaunted system has long waiting lists for "diagnostic tests and elective surgery", but it omits the fact that patients often wait over two months for cancer treatment. Or the fact that my friend who was unable to move because of sciatica was told that he had to wait over a month -- and risk paralysis -- before he could see the appropriate specialist. (He received faster treatment because of the connections of one of his friends.)

And what -- except for the horror of two tiers -- is the reason for outlawing private medical care? After all, one would think that for any given level of public expenditure, allowing private care would improve the level of medical care for everyone. The only reason given in the article is that "a two-tier system will draw doctors away from the public system, which already has a shortage of doctors ...". This is not the way things work with housing or mail delivery, but I suppose it's possible that the quality and quantity of doctors is fixed and independent of demand. Except that two of the three main Canadian parties -- the Liberal and the NDP -- actually claimed that there were too many doctors! And the NDP government of Ontario actually took positive measures to reduce the number of doctors:
By reducing the number of first-year medical students this fall, the University of Toronto takes a leap toward improving the health-care system.
The fact is that Canada will have as good a health care system as the government is willing to fund, and allowing private health care will only make it better.

I feel that this horrible "too few doctors" argument holds the clue as to why private health care was made illegal and why the public system became so bad. In fact, according to my completely unscientific study, the public health system started to go into sharp decline right around the time that private care was illegalized. The government(s) wanted to reduce public health care expenditures by reducing the quality of health care offered, and my theory is that they felt this would be better accepted by the people if the people had no basis for comparison to see just how bad things were becoming. Of course people knew what was available (for many) in the United States, but this idea still worked for many years and allowed the state of Canadian health care to deteriorate badly.

The argument that became "don't allow private medical care, or else people won't support our crappy public system" started out as "don't allow private medical care, so that people will allow our system to become crappy".

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mark Kleiman is concerned about what he calls the "TGIF problem": that people don't enjoy their jobs enough. "What does make me unhappy," he writes, "is that, in what is by some measures the richest nation in the history of the planet, most people don't really enjoy the activity that occupies about a third of their waking hours."

It's widely considered an ideal, of course, to be able to do for a living what one loves to do anyway. But let's face it--we can't all be prostitutes.

That may sound like a flip comment--okay, it is a flip comment--but I would argue that there's also an important truth behind it. The usual explanation for why most people don't hold jobs that involve doing what they love is that there's nothing that they love to do that they could actually get paid to do. But that's usually not true. In fact, almost every hobby has a corresponding job, and many of those jobs in fact employ millions of people. Lots of hobbyists, for example, enjoy gardening, or woodwork, or auto mechanics, or cooking--or, for that matter, sex.

But doing these things as a hobby is very, very different from doing them for a living. A hobbyist pleases him- or herself, makes his or her own hours, and works on the projects--and even the aspects of a given project--that he or she enjoys working on, skimping on the parts that are less enjoyable. A professional, on the other hand, must please employers or customers, by working on giving them what they want, when they want it, the way they want it. It's hardly surprising, then, that professionals often view their work as little better than an exhausting succession of unpleasant tasks.

Indeed, doing what one loves, but for a living instead of for fun, often drains all the joy out of doing it--my flip comment above being an obvious example. And to me, that's much worse than having to do a tolerable job one would not normally perform voluntarily. After all, in the latter case one is still free to enjoy one's unspoiled passions fully in one's spare time.

Kleiman points to professors--many of whom prefer to keep working through retirement age, as "emeriti"--as exemplars of the ideal of doing one's favorite activity for a living. But academia is something of a special case. There really aren't that many full research professors, as a fraction of the population. They are carefully selected by a rigorous process that requires them to demonstrate their willingness to obsess about their work for years on end. And then they are then given tenure, which allows them considerable freedom to tailor their work in just about any way that pleases them.

Society can afford one or two sparsely-populated vocations like that. But a world of tenured doctors or tenured middle managers or tenured electricians would look a lot like--well, the world of tenured public school teachers. And thank goodness most of North America functions better than its public schools.

Of course, there are people who are blessed with a love of a particular activity so intense that they even enjoy pursuing it professionally, despite all the drawbacks of doing so. Such people are very lucky--as are people with a particular talent so immense that they can exploit it on their own terms, as if it were a hobby, and still make a good living. But for the rest of us, the sensible course of action is to find a real job, and save our cherished pastimes for after hours.

So I say to the myriad editors who are no doubt ready to offer me untold riches, if only I'll agree to turn my blogging hobby into a career in professional opinion journalism: save your breath--this blogger's not for sale.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The 1961 newspaper article by Peter Benenson that led to the founding of Amnesty International is a fascinating historical document. It harkens back to the era when "freedom of speech" was a rallying cry on the left, rather than the right--presumably because at the time, the left considered itself an insurgent political movement rebelling against an established order, not as the established order itself. But Benenson's vision of a worldwide campaign for the release of "prisoners of conscience"--citizens jailed and mistreated merely for voicing political dissent--also appealed to the right wing of his day, as a way to call attention to political repression behind the Iron Curtain. No doubt this bipartisan appeal was one of the chief reasons for AI's remarkably long-lived international prestige. It also helped stave off the "mission creep" that can send altruistic organizations off on foolish tangents, or diffuse their efforts until their purpose loses all coherence.

The end of the Cold War, though, took away the external pressure on Amnesty to maintain its bipartisan discipline. The result can be seen in AI's 2005 Secretary-General's message, where Amnesty's original goal of defending dissidents against political repression barely rates a mention. Instead, we read about "economic and social rights", "HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, poverty, child and maternal mortality, and development aid", and "violence against millions of women….including genital mutilation, rape, beatings by partners, and killings in the name of honour". The two countries that come in for the most criticism are Sudan and the US—Sudan for mass murder in Darfur, and the US for denying due process in some cases to "'suspected terrorists'". And most famously, the Secretary-General asserts that the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay for suspected strategically important Al Qaida and Taliban members "has become the gulag of our times".

Plenty of commentators have given AI grief over this comparison, attacking it as a gross error of scale and a symptom of leftist bias. Meanwhile, AI's defenders on the left have treated the analogy as a minor exaggeration distracting from the real issue of American brutality. But few--the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum and Reason's Cathy Young, both accomplished Sovietologists, being notable exceptions--have called attention to by far the most objectionable aspect of the Secretary-General's odious comparison: that she lumped the Soviet Gulag, whose main function was to punish Soviet citizens suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Soviet regime, together with Guantanamo, whose detainees, whatever else one might think of their treatment, are most certainly not being held in an effort to silence domestic political opponents. And no other commentator that I've seen has recognized this failure to distinguish between these cases as a betrayal of AI's own founding ideals. Indeed, in the world of activist organizations--led, of course by the UN--the entire concept of freedom from political repression has been so completely subsumed under the ridiculously broad rubric of "human rights" as to have completely disappeared from view, just as it disappeared from the AI Secretary-General's message.

Consider, for example, Amnesty's appeals for June 2005. They include a German-born Turk arrested in Pakistan and held at Guantanamo; a Palestinian under "administrative detention" in Israel; and a woman accused of complicity in a series of bombings in Uzbekistan. Let us put aside, for the moment, the odd fact that all three appeals involve Muslims imprisoned by the US or one of its allies on suspicion of participation in terrorist activities. The more striking fact is that two of the three are being held by countries with a democratic government and abundant political freedom. A glance at previous months shows a similar pattern: of the fourteen appeals for the four months prior to June, exactly one involved imprisonment of a political dissident in a dictatorship, and two more involved claims of religious persecution in a dictatorship. (Oddly enough, both involved central Asian former Soviet republics.) Three more involved general brutality by repressive dictatorships; the rest--fully half--involved democratic countries with free speech and an active popular press.

Now, the point here is not to assert that democracies are somehow morally infallible. The point is that governmental misdeeds in a free, democratic country are subject to public discussion, judgment and action--that is, they are political matters. There is no need for a worldwide appeal on behalf of the victims of injustice in such countries--local journalists and "human rights" activists are generally happy to do the job of publicizing such cases themselves. Amnesty International was established in the first place on the premise that only external pressure, such as from an international campaign, can coax a despotic regime to refrain from brutality towards its domestic political opponents. Evidently, the members of AI itself have forgotten the original premise behind their organization's existence.

In a kind of final repudiation of its original mission, the head of AI's American branch recently called on all 190 signatories to the Geneva Conventions--free democracies and repressive tyrannies alike--to arrest and prosecute senior US government officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for their role in alleged incidents of torture in US detention facilities. That is, the AI that was founded to rally the world's democracies against repressive governments that imprison political opponents, now rallies repressive governments to imprison the freely elected political leaders of the world's preeminent democracy. Peter Benenson's vision may live on, but the organization he founded has, for all intents and purposes, destroyed itself.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Something is Very Wrong With 100% of the Faculty at MIT
Many people are writing about all the "diversity" nonsense at Harvard -- notably Heather MacDonald -- but almost no one is complaining about the sins of her sister institution just down the river.

In a long article in the MIT Technology Review with the frightening title "Diversity Pledge", we learn that the MIT faculty has unanimously pledged that "within a decade, MIT is to double the percentage of minorities on its faculty and triple the percentage of minority graduate students". The article is mind-numbingly awful and you should read as much of it as possible. John Rosenberg, the only person I know of who has written about it, points out that it is hard to reconcile this Pledge with the fact that its author, Prof. Rafael Bras, insists that people be "treated fairly within his department regardless of race or gender".

But let's back up and try to understand the Pledge a bit better. The reader may well be confused, since (probably) the MIT faculty and student body consists mainly of minorities. Now many people who are not scientists use words like "minority" to mean whatever they want them to mean, without even thinking about it. MIT-trained scientists, on the other hand, do it completely consciously. The article tells us that
MIT defines underrepresented minorities as African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics -- populations with disproportionately few members working in science, technology, engineering, and math. (Any subsequent mentions in this article of "minorities" at MIT refer to people from these groups.)
So the real reason that minorities are underrepresented at MIT is because that is how they are defined. Nonetheless, most of the article is a totally incoherent attempt to offer explanations for, and solutions to, this problem.

Apparently part of the problem is MIT's fault, as evidenced by the harrowing tale of Prof. Bras. Bras experienced racism in Boston/Cambridge when he came there as a student, and
MIT, Bras says, has been no different in this regard than the rest of the country. Which is why, when he became a professor of civil and environmental engineering and, later, head of the department, he made diversity his 'personal agenda item' ... In 2003, Bras became chair of the MIT faculty, and his scope was now Institute-wide.
Perhaps this is the "unconscious, invisible bias" that Nancy Hopkins (more about her below) complains about. And there are other, equally blood-curdling examples of what happens to minorities at MIT:
Faculty and grad students interviewed for this article say their experiences have been mostly good. But discrimination still exists. "We are a large community here, and there have been incidents of blatant racism. There have been insensitive remarks," says Bras, who adds, however, that he personally has found MIT to be very supportive. Hernandez tears up when he talks about the "warm, welcoming community" he discovered at the Institute. Assistant dean of grad students Jones, who is African American, says the isolation and self-consciousness he felt as a graduate student were what all students -- minority or not -- feel at times. That said, he notes that minorities do not have the networks in place to help them deal with those feelings.

"A nationwide shortage of minorities in science and engineering" is mentioned briefly, but otherwise is not addressed. The article states that for potential graduate students, money is also a problem, since minorities tend to be poor. No solution is offered to this, and thankfully so, since if MIT started paying higher stipends to poor graduate students then the wrong kind of poor person just might wind up coming, yielding the wrong kind of Diversity. The fact that "In some minority communities, an advanced degree in science or engineering carries distinctly less status than other professional options" is also part of the white man's burden at MIT. In addition, "many minorities think getting into MIT is unachievable", although no explanation is given why so many minorities-that-we-don't-call-minorities don't feel that way.

But it is clear that all these problems must be overcome, and the Pledge must be successful. Why? A semi-coherent argument is made that more racial diversity is important for urban studies. This is contrasted with the fact that "there is no 'black' physics", but the physicists and everybody else appear to feel otherwise. "Look at all this incredible talent we're missing" and "different perspectives enhance creativity" are typical comments. Also, "many faculty agree that putting more effort into diversifying the university only increases the quality of its students and faculty"; presumably all the rest of the faculty support the effort even though they don't believe this. And then there is that pressure coming from above.
Federal funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, now require grant seekers to show that they are actively working to improve diversity before their funding requests will be certified. Although NIH doesn't set quotas, it wants to see evidence that grant recipients are succeeding in their outreach efforts. "The sabers are rattling," says Isaac Colbert, MIT's dean for graduate students. Funding agencies have to meet their own diversity goals in hiring, Colbert says, and since they "get their employees from us, they need people to fill the pipeline."
Thank God for all those non-quotas.

So how should MIT go about achieving its Pledge? Of course, no wailing about missing minorities would be complete without comparing them to and confusing them with Women, and here the infamous Nancy Hopkins enters the picture. Professor Hopkins (discussed here) is the main author of a bogus report accusing MIT of discriminating against women. "That report rallied women faculty to the cause and helped improve the campus cultural climate. Since then the population of women faculty members has grown by roughly 25 percent". No mention is made of why it didn't rally 100% of men faculty to the cause. Nor is it pointed out that the case of women is very different from the case of minorities since, as pointed out above, minorities are not being discriminated against; in fact, it appears that 100% of faculty wish to discriminate in favor of them.

Oops! Not quite, for nowhere in the article is it stated that MIT will have lower standards for minorities. That would be as unthinkable as quotas. Instead, MIT will use lots of different kinds of "outreach" programs, similar to those that succeeded in increasing the number of women. (Presumably these were more successful than merely removing discrimination against women.) For women, this worked as follows:
The department created a central search committee to coordinate all searches and staffed it with faculty members particularly committed to diversity. The committee was aggressive in seeking female applicants. Members called colleagues at peer universities and asked them to recommend recent graduates or otherwise tracked down attractive candidates and invited them to apply. The committee also expanded the scope of its search to include related disciplines where there were larger populations of women. If a talented female candidate didn't fit the criteria for one job, a committee member might recommend her for another or even to another department.

Special funding available to departments through what is called a "bridge slot" also helped the School of Engineering attract more women. A decade ago, the MIT provost's office decided it would fund faculty positions for five years if they went to senior women. After that, funding would have to come out of the annual budgets of the new hires' departments.
Standards aren't lowered, just changed. And men aren't discriminated against, there's just no budget left for them.

Here are some examples of outreach programs for minorities.
One of the programs is a 10-week summer research program for minority college sophomores and juniors; according to Jones, 17 percent of the students who have participated in it have ended up at MIT. ... And at an MIT open-house weekend last April, the department hired an organization that specializes in giving tours of Boston that highlight the city's racial and ethnic diversity. The department's efforts have paid off: 80 percent of minority applicants accepted last year decided to study at MIT.
The first of these programs seems to me to be illegal, even by the weird standards of the Supreme Court. And what about the 83% that did not end up at MIT? My guess is that most of them were rejected, but it would be nice to know. Also, is 80% higher than the standard fraction of accepted minority applicants who come to MIT? And what became of the other 20%? I suppose it's possible that those who were not saved by MIT wound up in prison, but I suspect they are more likely to be found at Harvard, Stanford, etc.

Of course, none of this can work without internal reorganization and internal pressure at MIT.
Regarding faculty searches, all departments must share information about faculty and graduate student candidates with [provost] Brown. He in turn must report annually to the MIT faculty, the Faculty Policy Committee, and the Council on Faculty Diversity about the progress schools and departments have made. ... Bras and the faculty chair-elect (Bras steps down this summer) have been visiting every department "so the issue won't get lost," he says. ... After the resolution passed, the office hired Chris Jones, ... a new assistant dean who will work both internally and externally to recruit minority students to MIT. ... Internally, the Institute needs to make minority students feel more welcome, says dean for grad students Colbert. ... "I'm talking about bringing out the human element." One way to do that is to find what Colbert calls a "faculty champion" in each department, someone who will work with the Graduate Student Office to reach out to potential students.
At least MIT isn't imposing quotas on departments. And best of all, there is no mention in the article of "affirmative action".

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Most Harmful Books?
This list of the most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of criticism (Darwin is harmful?), but I have two severe criticisms of my own: one inclusion and one exclusion.

The wrong inclusion is Hitler's Mein Kampf. What harm did this book do? Almost nobody bought it when it first came out. It became popular later because Hitler was popular, but there is no reason to believe that anybody read it much, or that it had any influence whatsoever. On the other hand, if enough people had read it, Hitler's plans might have been taken more seriously. On a related note, I think the world would be a better place if more people read what this man has to say.

The book that I feel is wrongly excluded from the list is Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front", published in 1929. A typical view of this book, given by an Amazon reviewer is, "This is the greatest war novel ever because Remarque's book is anti-war."

Anti-war. What does is mean? It doesn't mean "war is hell", a sentiment no one disagrees with. "Anti-war" means that in any war, both sides are equally wrong, and either side would be better off making whatever unilateral concessions are necessary to end the war, or to make sure that it doesn't start in the first place. Unlike Mein Kampf, Remarque's book was very widely read, and its lessons were very well learned in Europe (except for Germany, where Hitler burnt it). War Must Never Happen Again. Or at least it must be delayed as long as possible. And made as severe as possible. And millions of people must die.

Of course, there were anti-war influences besides Quiet, and I'm not even sure how Remarque meant his book to be interpreted. But to the extent that any one book can kill 50 million people, this book did.