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Archive for September, 2010

…of best excuses for positive doping tests in sports.

“It was tainted meat,” though, doesn’t even come close to the all-time greats…

My favorites

More here.

You don’t win credibility points for creativity! I don’t know why more people don’t just stick to “the Shaggy defense”:

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A lot of news outlets are picking up the top-line results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s hilarious study, which reveals that the most religious Americans actually know very little about the religions they purportedly practice. Among the comical results:

  • 55% of Americans incorrectly identified the Golden Rule as one of the Ten Commandments
  • 57% of evangelical Protestants cannot identify the four gospels of the New Testament
  • Atheists/agnostics and Jews (and Mormons) scored the most answers correctly.

Yes, you can make a reasonable assertion that one need not know the names of the four Gospels in order to be a good Christian, in the same way that one need not know the Bill of Rights in order to be a good American. There’s no entrance exam to vote for President; surely people can make their own religious decisions. Nevertheless, it’s surprising (or, you know, not) how deeply Americans believe in a vague idea of religion, rather than deeply understanding the religion itself.

There remains the problem of making an uninformed and willfully ignorant argument. I am a strong proponent of knowledge- and content-based education, particularly at an early age. Without a strong base foundation of knowledge, one cannot then operate with higher-level critical thinking. Without a base knowledge of the history and context of one’s religion, religious belief really does degrade into the atheist caricature of “one step above believing in Santa Claus.” It’s no surprise that the most important religious reforms in most religions involve bringing the holy text closer to the layperson, rather than further away.

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Greg Sargent has a good rundown of various angles of complaint against the Obama administration. I am unsure as to whether his suggestion to the Obama administration of “engagement” with his left flank is necessarily the best advice, but I’ll leave the politicking to the expert.

I did wonder, however, which of the three camps my own dissent with the Obama administration comes from. Essentially, Sargent lays out three rough areas of disagreement:

  1. The unenthused base — union workers, poor people, minorities
  2. The issue-oriented dissent — civil libertarians, doves, consumer rights advocates
  3. The politics-oriented dissent — MoveOn, progressive organizers, populists

I guess I’d probably fit more into the 2nd category. I think that Obama’s actions have been fairly good politics for Obama. That is to say, Obama still remains relatively popular, and his place in history will be largely affirmed. He saved the nation from an economic crisis, passed his signature health care and financial reform legislation, and handled various crises essentially unscathed. (The jury’s still out on Iraqistan.) That said, I think that Group 3 has a good argument in terms of the party as a whole.

As far as the “stop whining” idea, there’s only so much that whining can do. As in the health care and financial reform debates, it has become clear that I would rather have something in the form of a watered-down bill, as opposed to nothing which is what the alternative appears to be. In this case, I would prefer Obama to the alternative.

Nevertheless, I think the importance of the Overton window cannot be overstated here. The Republicans are veering more towards the crazy all the time, and are pulling the debate to the right constantly. Why aren’t lefties allowed to do the same? Must we always defer to The Leader? I don’t think liberalism is any more conducive to autocracy than conservatism, and certainly Republican base types have rebelled against Bush and the establishment many a time (see: immigration reform).

If anything, the Obama Administration should welcome the whining! It makes the center all the more attracted to him. Nothing makes a moderate Democrat happier than punching a hippie, or vicariously watching the President punch a hippie.

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Toxie — a “toxic asset” purchased by NPR’s Planet Money program, and dissected and discussed over the last few months — has finally died. For those unfamiliar with the series, NPR has a personal finance show, which bought a $500 “toxic asset” during the massive post-crash dump.

As an liberal artsy English-French major, my understanding of most financial instruments was cursory. Like many, I had a grasp of basic macro- and microeconomics, but was not well-versed at all in the world of high finance and the like.

With the financial world collapsing around us, it seemed like a good time to bone up on my knowledge of such topics, and one story that helped was Planet Money‘s series on “Toxie.” They tracked the mortgages contained within, finding out what happened to the people behind the asset, as well as the long-reaching effects of the assets themselves. If you click on the above link, you can hear the stories from the beginning, which I found useful in a different way than, say Too Big To Fail or The Big Short.

Similarly, for those wondering why toxic assets went so bad, check out this post from a few months back on Marginal Revolution. The small differences in the risk of failure in individual homes makes the overall risk much higher, turning a seemingly safe investment into an unsafe one in a hurry.

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This fits into my working hypothesis that collaboration is much more the model for the advancement of knowledge. As much as we have uber-creative heroes, such as Da Vinci or Newton, those heroes only exist because of highly innovative and communicative communities that informed their ideas. Newton himself said that he stood “on the shoulders of giants.”

(There are many ways in which the popular individualist view of history has damaged our psyches, but that’s a story for another time.)

I do think, though, that the access to new information online creates the problem of information glut — there being no good way of separating the wheat from the chaff. The sorting mechanism has to be so much better advanced than, say, Reddit, in order to become more functional for the great idea-maker.

Anyways, the video makes me want to read the book.

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Seriously, Democrats suck.

Senate Dems squirmed their way out of voting on extending just the Bush tax cuts.

Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who won her seat in 2008 because of phenomenal black turnout for one Barack Obama, has used her hold power to damage the functioning of the federal government.

And oh yeah, the Republicans are willing to use reconciliation to do whatever they want if we get a Republican senate.

Being a Democrat is a bit like being a Cubs fan.

Actually, it’s a lot like being a Cubs fan.

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Like Ezra Klein, I am unsurprised that the much-touted idea of “merit pay” turns out not to work that well, according to the latest study from Vanderbilt (here).

I’m also with Klein on the general point of overall teacher salaries, as opposed to specific teacher salaries. (It would stand to reason that more talented people would go into education, if salaries averaged those of investment bankers.) At the same time, though, I want to hazard us against believing that economic incentives are magical and that Klein’s broader incentive structures may not be as attractive as they appear.

Take investment banking — an analogy that Klein uses. Investment bankers receive performance bonuses, which are directly tied to performance. And yet, I don’t think anyone would call investment banks “well-run” in the wake of the financial crisis. I would further hazard that few would say that compensation at investment banks are well-designed for optimal outcomes (see: Lehman Brothers).

Furthermore, overall salaries in i-banking are quite high and attractive, despite the fact that i-banking requires enormous time investment and sucks your soul away. Does this give us an optimally functioning system? Not at all! In fact, I would guess that the exorbitant period for i-bankers (1980s-present) was no more productive for the stability of banks or society than the period preceding it.

This is not to say that merit pay is bad, per se, simply that it does not solve many of the problems in education. In fact, even increasing overall pay (ex: Illinois — $58k average teacher salary — ranked #1 in salary comfort index — ranked #37 in ACT score) will not necessarily produce better results, attract better talent, or train better teachers.

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