May 30, 2003

briefly/visitors

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:57 PM
I turned on referrer logging recently to see how people were finding my page. It seems that new visitors fall into three categories:
  • People who click the link on Mason's page. Welcome!

  • People searching in Google for "gazebo's". For these visitors, I suggest you read this and then try this.

  • People searching for explicit pictures of Xenosaga characters. I won't quote any search results here since it'll only draw more such hits, but some of these are really sick. Look, if you're going to search for this sort of thing on the Internet, at least find some women who are not computer generated. I assume finding an actual woman in the real world is out of the question, of course.

May 28, 2003

briefly/transit

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:47 PM
I'm riding the BART these days, shortly before it becomes extremely convenient for me to do so (my new apartment is adjacent to a BART station), since my campus parking permit has expired.

The best thing about this is that I recover a little bit of time that used to be wasted driving - 40 minutes a day or so. At the moment I'm just playing Golden Sun on my GBA, but I should pick up a book to read, or download the NY Times (or at least the crossword puzzle) onto my Clie.

May 27, 2003

contemplation/monotheocracy

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:17 PM
It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.
---Robert Green Ingersoll, apparently not referring to George W. Bush's judicial nominees.

More on church-state separation today. First off, Howard Dean by way of Slate (fourth item) informs us that Bush's 2001 education bill states that "every school has to certify there's constitutionally protected school prayer in your local public school." (Dean's phrasing) Which leads me again to ask, have any of our legislators even read the constitution? Or have all the copies in Washington been removed to the Ashcroft residence to be used as toilet paper?

My concern is that even if the courts don't recognize constitutionally protected school prayer now, they will in the near future given the way Bush is stacking the courts. (This will be especially true if the plans to eliminate the filibuster rule go through.) Is school prayer a more dangerous problem for education than standardized testing? Well, no. I honestly don't think the slippery slope goes very far. It's just a waste of student time, and alienates the Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc.

(Off-topic - David Brin once made the argument that our society benefits from the social stigma that accrues to intellectuals, especially in schools. The idea being that those branded as nerds are discouraged from socializing, so they end up spending their free time studying, and later in life, making new discoveries. The reason I bring this up is that the rate of atheism among scientists is much higher than in the general population - 50% versus 10%. Maybe the alienation of atheists will be good for scientific discovery - however, the increase of religion in education is overall very bad for science.)

This provision in the education bill illustrates the three-pronged attack that religious conservatives are making on church-state separation. Enact laws that push the boundary of acceptable religion in government, selectively enforce existing laws through Ashcroft's Justice Department in a way sympathetic to Christians, and appoint judges who will uphold these actions. The article linked last Friday from The American Prospect focused more on the latter two points.

So how far are they going to get? My guess is that Abrahamaic monotheism will become the de facto state religion of the United States; for example, the kind of school prayers that will eventually be allowed (or mandated!) will be ones with vague references to "God" in a way that satisfies Jews, Christians, and Muslims (but no one else). Those people who have the silly fixation with posting the Ten Commandments on every available wall (under the absolutely ridiculous pretense that "they are the basis for our laws") will be allowed to do so. There will be some backsliding on women's rights and gay rights, but I don't think it's the slippery slope scenario leading to the Talibanization of America that some people envision. Certain rights are enjoyed by too large a fraction of the populace to be overturned. (Sorry, Rick Santorum - I don't think contraception is going to be outlawed anytime soon.) In other words, the tyranny of the majority only extends as far as the majority.

Still, it's going to suck if this comes about - maybe not so much for those atheists who are lucky enough to be straight and male, and thus just have to grind our teeth through the latest government-sponsored prayer, but mainly for the ones the religious right really has it in for - gay men, and women of all orientations.

(Off-topic again - couldn't the Democratic presidential candidates make a dent by attacking Bush on women's rights? Some of the judges he's nominated are on record with severely misogynist comments. Then there's that international treaty on women's rights that the Bush administration refused to support. I'm sure there are more examples; maybe I'll go look around Google News later.)

Another area that will suffer, as I've repeatedly mentioned, is American science. In fact, it's already suffering. This is a big enough topic to merit its own post, though, so I'll deal with that in an upcoming entry.

notes/summer

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:50 AM
This past weekend was my first to be completely free in a long time. I celebrated by playing lots of Planetside and Dynasty Warriors 4, hence the silence on this page.

Classes are over and the campus is very quiet today. The summer session will start up in a few weeks but until then the place is going to seem pretty depopulated.

After nine months of cool weather, 72 degrees feels blazing hot. Especially when climbing the hill from the BART station...

May 23, 2003

contemplation/theocrats

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:55 PM
The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.

---Thomas Jefferson

The American Prospect has an article this week (W.'s Christian Nation) summarizing attacks on church-state separation by the Bush administration and others. (As most of you know this is one of my favorite topics.) Most of it is not new to me, although it seems like every week there's some new Christian nutjob appointed to an influential judgeship. The article is useful, though, in sketching the big picture for church-state issues. I've started thinking in somewhat broad terms about this, so I may write about it in the next few days (or, alternatively, find something more interesting and drop the thread entirely). Anyway, here are some of the questions I'm pondering:

  • How worried should we be? Everyone's got their favorite slippery-slope scenario that ends with George H. W. Bush's dream of revoking atheists' citizenships. Realistically though, how much ground is going to be lost in the next few years under Bush, DeLay, Frist, and Scalia?

  • How much of this does the American public support? Some ridiculous fraction of people think "under God" ought to stay in the Pledge of Allegiance (and to these people, I extend a heartfelt middle finger). Presumably not all of these people are in favor of, say, school prayer. How far does the tyranny of the majority extend?

  • How sympathetic is Bush personally to the goals of the religious right? (And does it matter?) Is he just trying to shore up his base, or does he really envision a Christian nation?

  • What are the immediate, identifiable effects of religious politics? For one, American science is already falling behind in fields like cloning and stem cell research.

  • How does the situation compare with other nations? Most European countries have populations more secular than the United States, despite a lack of official church-state separation.

I'd like to say something intelligent about these issues, but it remains to be seen whether I can come up with anything. In the meantime, I'm off to this thing at John's house.

planning/stroll

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:39 PM
Tonight: dinner at the advisor's house. (It's a farewell party for two graduating group members.)

These occasions have two (related) good qualities:

1. John has very good wine, and

2. His house is in walking distance.

Unfortunately #2 will no longer be true in a couple of weeks when I move, so I'll be able to enjoy less of #1 in the future.

A woman once asked me, "How many drinks does it take before you start talking?" I'm not sure such a number exists, actually. (I don't intend to test for it tonight, but I thought I'd mention it.)

May 22, 2003

recycling/practice

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:18 PM
None of my regular readers are Plasticians (as far as I know) so I don't feel guilty about recycling my posts from there (as I'm about to do). There's a discussion running today (Bush Raises Education Bar - States Issue Platform Shoes) about how states are artificially raising their standardized test scores by lowering standards in order to meet federal requirements. What really set me off, though, was a comment making the common argument that "teaching to the test" isn't a problem if the test covers the right content. My own public school experience has made me skeptical of standardized testing, but until I pounded out this post I didn't realize how visceral my feelings were. Anyway, here's the full text of my comment. (Italics are quotes from the post I'm responding to.)
Subject: Teaching to the test is not so easy to solve.

How hard is it to teach a kid reading, writing and 'rithmatic, and to then test for it?

On the level of an individual classroom, not insurmountably difficult. But how hard is it to test for, say, writing skills on a statewide level in a standardized way? My guess is it's pretty damn hard.

The state will have hundreds of thousands of writing samples to evaluate, so you have to hire a bunch of people to grade these things. For these evaluations to be any good, they should be controlled in some way across the different graders, so someone draws up a rubric of what, for purposes of the test, defines "good writing". It's not enough just to check grammar, spelling and punctuation students need to write coherently as well as correctly. It's important that the rubric be strictly adhered to, so that a student's score doesn't depend on which grader he happens to get, but on the other hand any attempt to distill the essence of "good writing" into a ten point score is necessarily going to be incomplete.

In addition to the rubric the test makers have to put some constraints on form and content of the writing sample. Obviously fiction and poetry are out too hard to draw up a corresponding rubric. Testing the ability to write a research paper is too impractical. Topics political in nature or otherwise thought-provoking may bring out some bias in the grader, so those need to be avoided. So the only thing a standardized writing test can really test is the ability to write short essays on extremely bland subjects. This is where "teaching to the test" comes in.

If the problem is "teaching to the test", make the test reflect the objectives. Problem solved.

I hear this frequently, and it seems to me that such an argument ignores the practicalities of standardized testing.

The biggest problem is that one can increase one's score on a standardized test through familiarity with its form as well as its content. (I understand this is the principle behind SAT preparation courses.) This leads to the biggest single waste of my time when I was in high school (and that's saying a lot!): practice tests. Literally weeks of class time spent taking the standardized tests over and over again, practicing that short bland essay when we could be reading literature or writing fiction or poetry. We actually studied the grading rubric itself it took on importance far in excess of its design and became the de facto definition of good writing for my sophomore English class. This is what is meant by "teaching to the test", and it's a total waste of time and money. A true test of a student's writing ability and versatility cannot be done on a statewide level.

And that is why I blame the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for all my short and bland Plastic posts.

Any thoughts?

celebration/stage

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:44 AM
Stage Clear! Advance to the next level.

It's official - I have finished my classes for this semester, and completed the course requirements for the Ph.D. The next hurdle is the qualifying exam, which I won't take for at least another year. Then on to the final stage - the dissertation. Berkeley's physics department does not require a thesis defense, so I'll be spared that ordeal.

Doesn't sound like much when I put it that way, but I have three or four more years of research ahead of me. It's certainly nice to be done with classes, though.

May 21, 2003

contemplation/explosion

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:42 PM
Walking back from lunch today, I heard a loud bang and saw a puff of smoke by a fountain on campus (at the corner of Bancroft and College). Nothing seemed to be damaged, and I walked on by, not really knowing what to think. I guess it was probably a dumb fraternity prank, but the explosion at Yale today makes me think I should take these things more seriously.

rant/violence

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:41 PM
In case anyone is wondering why I don't care for Joe Lieberman, here's a good example. The author of that piece nails it in the second paragraph so there's really not much more for me to say. If he's worried about his daughters, maybe he should try actual parenting instead of working to censor a form of entertainment and, yes, artistic expression.

In terms of obnoxious comments by Senator Lieberman, though, this doesn't even come close to the time he suggested that atheists are necessarily immoral. (Not to mention implying, falsely, that he had the backing of George Washington and John Adams on that assertion.) I'd love to hear his explanation as to how I turned out a productive member of society despite my lack of religion and preference for violent forms of entertainment. Or maybe it's all a delicate facade, and I'm just going to snap any minute.

You know, it's not the video games that inspire my violent thoughts, it's sanctimonious politicians. Maybe we can get them banned instead.

May 20, 2003

contemplation/data

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:08 PM
I heard that the terror advisory was back to orange, and I started thinking about Bush's job approval rating. Specifically, if he gets a boost from starting a war, does he get a smaller boost from things like terror alerts? I was able to find time series data for the job approval rating, and the answer is no - or at least, not observably.

Actually, the data itself is quite interesting. First, the statistical spread between the polls is so high - on the order of 10% - that only very large changes can be seen. One can also see the biases of the individual polls pretty clearly.

Only two events have a noticeable effect - obviously, 9/11 and the Iraq war. Between these two, the downward trend (the subject of an earlier post, before I saw this plot) is stunningly linear. It seems that Bush alienates people at an approximately constant rate over time, which is encouraging. (Encouraging, except that it gives him motivation to start more wars.)

reaction/miracle

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:33 AM
I expected my extremely late and dubious quality 240B term paper to be just barely enough to pass me. Given the grade I actually got, they must have used the time-honored grading method known as "count the number of pages", allowing mine to slip through despite the fact that it could have been written by a pack of trained ferrets.

Hey, I'm not going to complain. "Take the money and run" is what Doc P always said about situations like this.

May 19, 2003

maintenance/links

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:34 PM
I've added a links section to the sidebar; just the first that came to mind for the moment. If you'd like to be in the friends & family section, post a comment or message me (it's strictly opt-in).

May 12, 2003

addendum/slip

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:40 AM
Here's a terrific quote to go with that last entry. Interesting slip there, George.
We've got hundreds of sites to exploit, looking for the chemical and biological weapons that we know Saddam Hussein had prior to our entrance into Iraq.
George W. Bush, Santa Clara, Calif., May 2, 2003

rant/protection

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:35 AM
Lisa Schiffren's impressive feat of one-handed typing has attracted some attention. It almost attracted the contents of my stomach, but I managed to hold my lunch down somehow. There are still a few things I'm confused about, like how when Bush attacks Baghdad he's "vanquish[ing] a truly evil foe" but when Clinton attacks Baghdad he's conducting "[m]ilitary strikes to divert us from trials about lying about sex". I'm also confused about this quote from one of Schiffren's more coherent friends, "I think he is actually protecting me and my sons, and I find that attractive in a man."

I find this notion that Bush is protecting anybody very weird. Ok, he's good at protecting his own administration by refusing to release the findings of the 9/11 investigation. And he's protecting investors from the dividend tax. But that's about all I can come up with.

In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, we heard a lot about the need to protect Americans from Saddam's WMD. Bush gave us a whole laundry list of deadly materials he was certain could be found in Iraq. Hawks spun wild, frightening tales of nuclear explosions in Manhattan or Washington, D.C., and assured us that this would be the outcome if we failed to invade. I just have one question for those people who insisted war with Iraq was necessary to make us safe from WMD:

Do you feel safer now, motherfuckers?

May 10, 2003

response/statistics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:55 PM
I'm supposed to be doing work. Why am I reading George Will's column? I think the experience has made me dumber. Here's an "insightful" observation on Howard Dean's supposed inconsistency:
[Dean] also has said America "won't always have the strongest military." But here he said "no commander in chief would ever, and I am no exception, willingly allow our military to shrink." Got that?

Well, George, if you had stopped to think about it, it might have occurred to you that there are two ways in which America could lose its military dominance. Only one of them involves the US goverment making its military weaker. Maybe if you and John Kerry think really hard, you can figure out what the other one is.

Ok, here's a hint: it's related to the extracurricular activities of a certain GOP activist.

Will's a baseball fan, so naturally he likes his statistics. Here's how he ends the column:
The president has 71 percent job approval. Ronald Reagan had 58 percent in 1984, when he swept 49 states.

First of all, it looks to me like 65% rather than 71%. (Funny how it seems to drop every time you turn around. In fact, if you look at a plot of his approval rating over the course of his term, it's in continual decline except when there's a war or terrorist attack...) Second, comparing Bush's 2003 approval rating to Reagan's 1984 approval rating doesn't quite seem appropriate, since one is much closer to the election than the other. A better comparison might be, perhaps, to the elder Bush's approval rating after the first Gulf War, which was up at 90%. And we all know how well he did in the election. (This cuts both ways, though; who knows what war or terrorist attack Karl Rove has planned for October 2004.)

May 8, 2003

contemplation/wakefulness

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:42 AM
I should not have gone to that baseball game.

For one thing, the A's weren't playing so well. Also, it was really cold up where we were sitting. I certainly shouldn't have indulged in five hot dogs, even if they were $1 apiece. And now I get to work on my term paper until the sun comes up.

Tonight's playlist:

Verdi, Messe de Requiem
Mozart, Requiem Mass
Russian Opera Arias
Mahler, Symphony No. 7
Konami, Battle the Best
Konami, Dracula Battle I and II

Bonus points to the one who identifies which of these was used in X-Men 2, and where.

May 5, 2003

linkage/hydration

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:50 PM
According to USA Track and Field, we runners are not supposed to be drinking large quantities of water. Surprising. I always thought I wasn't drinking enough but maybe this means I'm just fine.

May 4, 2003

briefly/checkpoint

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:48 PM
Well, I survived the weekend... now for the hard part.

briefly/spirals

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:08 AM
If I were the type who could believe that a person could become caught in a vortex of chaotic energy, so that every event creates spirals of complication and uncertainty in his life, I would consider that an accurate description of the last few days.

I just want to know how the hell I'm supposed to concentrate on my term papers now.

May 2, 2003

planning/severity

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:57 AM
Travis's personal panic advisory has been upgraded to red (severe).

A large part of it is the impending end of the semester next week, and my having half a problem set and two term papers left to do. This by itself would not be so daunting a task for seven days, but that's assuming I can stay out of lab. However, there are always software updates to be done, and this is on a normal day - not a day like yesterday, when I am the first to arrive in lab in the morning only to discover that a power outage has stopped the fridge, and I have to single-handedly rescue it. Fortunately the experiment has recovered, but it didn't do much for my calm state of mind.

Still, all this isn't insurmountable - if I put in some hard work over the weekend, I should be ahead of the game come Monday, right? It's a great plan; too bad this weekend is somehow the social weekend of the year and scheduled down to the last hour. In addition to the usual D&D game, there's a Lloyd House reunion in Palo Alto, I'm going to see X-Men 2 with Mason, and I have a date tomorrow night.

I'd better get to work.

May 1, 2003

rant/proclamations

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:43 PM
It's, uh, Loyalty Day. Seriously. Presidential proclamation. Hey, not only that, it's also a National Day of Prayer. It's great that he can take time out of his busy schedule to take care of important stuff like this. Maybe if there's room in the calendar he could consider a "Sixth Amendment Day" or perhaps a "Not Creating Huge Budget Deficits With Tax Cuts for the Rich Day". You know what would be an interesting experiment? A "National Day of Not Praying", where all Americans leave God the hell alone for 24 hours and try to get through on their own. The dude's got a tough job; he could use a break every now and then.

Update: A closer reading of those links caused me to notice that this originated in Congress. So redirect my remarks appropriately.