Shut the fuck up about baseball

Holy shit, you mean baseball players took performance enhancing drugs?! My monocle!

Shut the fuck up about it, it doesn’t signal the collapse of Western civilization, you sanctimonious assholes. Big fucking deal, some jock cheated in some stupid game. The world didn’t end, your innocence isn’t lost, you’ll live through it. Stop writing stupid stories about it, idiots.

Who needs facts?

Not John McWhorter. In his review of Amy Wax’s book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, McWhorter waxes (ho ho) poetic about the persuasiveness of the argument, but completely fails to relate just what it is that makes it persuasive. The review begins, as such things so often do, with a complete strawman:

There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community.

Notice the unspoken assumptions smuggled into this sentence. First, it is simply assumed that such a “school of thought” exists, although none of its representatives are even identified, much less given a voice. The second assumption is that this school (whatever it is, if it even exists) believes that government must be the “main force,” in helping the black community; is there even a metric that allows one to compare who or what is a “main” force and what is an auxillary? I would suppose that if one actually spoke to people who study issues of this sort, one would discover a much more nuanced view on the role of government in bringing about racial equality.

The review, and, I must assume from the text, Wax’s book itself, contains one of those horrible appeals to analogy which is neither illuminating nor valid. McWhorter paraphrases it thus:

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible.

How this is supposed to teach us anything about the history of African-Americans is unclear. Justice is “impossible,” under this analysis because the framework of the “parable” is structured to prevent it from being possible. Even internally the example isn’t particularly coherent; we might well ask what happens if the truck driver has paralyzed the pedestrian, which would seem to be a reasonable question given the analogy. Now, the pedestrian can’t learn to walk, no matter how hard he tries! What kind of justice does the pedestrian, now crippled for life, deserve in this case?

Of course, to even begin to make this counter-argument is already a problem because it implies the acceptance of the analogy, which is in no way legitimate. Collisions between truck drivers and pedestrians are individual processes; the condition of blacks in America is not an individual process but a historic one. Truck drivers didn’t create structural conditions that continuously result in pedestrians being run over, whereas white America unquestionably did create (and continues to perpetuate) structural conditions that leave blacks at a disadvantage.

McWhorter goes on:

The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.

The italics in the quotation are mine. Let me first object to the use of the word “implacable” here as a mean rhetorical trick designed to move the faulty analogy out of the realm of debate. In fact, as is clear after minimal reflection, nothing about this logic is implacable at all; it’s actually quite faulty and not at all applicable to the situation in question, which in any case ought to be treated on its own merits. But even granting this false analogy, I still have to wonder by what mechanism of elimination Wax has concluded that “nothing else will work.” Does Wax’s book contain a thorough examination of various social programs together with an analysis of their performance? I don’t have the book, but I suspect that it’s not something you can do in 190 pages (and anyway, Wax is a lawyer, not a sociologist, so likely such an analysis would be beyond her expertise anyway). In fact, one might suppose that there are lots of things we haven’t tried that could certainly alleviate the difficulties that blacks face in America; for example, we could end the ludicrous and patently racist “war on drugs,” which locks up young black men at unprecedented rates. I doubt that this would solve every problem ever, but it sure would help. In the next paragraph, McWhorter’s argument (really, Wax’s argument, but McWhorter seems to agree with it) gets downright weird:

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.

Let’s grant for a moment Wax’s argument that discrimination today isn’t a “brick wall.” I don’t believe it’s true, but for the sake of argument I’ll allow it. It still remains true that the people alive today are the victims of actual discrimination from decades past. Since I assume that no one would make the argument that racism just disappeared abruptly, even if one believes it doesn’t really exist today, then certainly one must grant that blacks were, in fact, discriminated against in the past. What that means, for those of you who are adept at following causation, is that blacks today are living with the end product of that discrimination. Wax clearly acknowledges this, but wants to pretend that in this brave new world, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t see how this is a coherent position. Those structural deficiencies created by explicitly and implicitly discriminatory policies still exist. I’ve already mentioned  the war on drugs, but you can just as easily look at the difference in funding between urban and suburban school districts. When I was a high school student in California, I was lucky enough to attend a very rich school whose tax base was La Jolla, one of the wealthiest communities in the state. But I also had the chance to see numerous other campuses, which were decrepit by comparison. So long as such stark and undisputed inequalities persist, it’s hard to see how Wax’s apparent belief that we have done all we can could possibly stand up under scrutiny.

McWhorter acknowledges these difficulties at the end of the article, though in a rather oblique manner. Before he gets there, he throws out a couple of studies without a lot of context: that completing high school and delaying having kids is conducive to success, that the IAT is not the best indicator of discriminatory behavior (this is asserted and nothing is cited in support, but let’s roll with it), and that poor women don’t marry the fathers of their children not because the fathers are unemployed but because they are not dependable. The obvious question that arises here is how those factors are disentangled; wouldn’t someone who is undependable be likely to be unemployed? Potshots are thrown at random “black radicals” (who, I’m guessing, are probably of little relevance to the overall struggles of day-to-day life in black communities anyway) for failing to address out-of-wedlock births and Jeremiah Wright is trotted out to complete the parade of horribles.

What’s disappointing about all of this is that at the end, it’s not like McWhorter doesn’t understand that government has a role to play. Having thrown out some pretty categorical statements early on, he effectively backtracks to admit that government can in fact do things like improve educational equality, ease the transition of felons back into society, and enforce civil rights violations. And that it should be doing those things. Still, he can’t help but sign on to this paragraph from Wax:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

Government can certainly not do any of those things by fiat (although the last sentence seems of dubious validity). But it can, and should, try to create conditions in which those kinds of attitudes will flourish. Poverty, as I suspect McWhorter would acknowledge, has a logic of its own that has little to do intrinsically with whether one is black or white. For historical reasons, we have a black underclass in this country, but being black doesn’t somehow cause you to adopt the “wrong culture.” On the other hand, there is a clear causal connection between being black and finding yourself the persistent victim of structural inequalities predicated, in the not-too-distant past, on racial discrimination. Once you find yourself a member of that underclass, with the corresponding limited horizons and substantially greater day-to-day travails, you can’t just will yourself out of it. Well, maybe if you’re really good, you can, but the average person, black or white or anything in between, is going to struggle, and understandably so. To think otherwise is just fantasy. It’s especially bizarre for Wax to ask,

Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?

Well, is it? It would seem that Wax believes the answer to this question is negative, though this isn’t stated anywhere. But more importantly, what if one really is a victim of grievous mistreatment and one’s shortcomings (a loaded term in and of itself) are actually a product of external forces?

McWhorter concludes his review with the suggestion that saying that government and personal choices both have a role to play is like having your cake and eating it too. But I would counter that such a statement is simply a truism, and that Wax is playing a dishonest shell game. On the one hand, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against blacks over the course of this country’s history; on the other hand, such an acknowledgment leads naturally to the conclusion that this isn’t just a private problem but a social problem that can and should be addressed in policy. And that’s not acceptable to Wax for whatever reason, so she quickly has to swap in the idea that we’ve already done all we can and the rest is the responsibility of the black community. Nevermind that this isn’t supported by any real evidence and that so much more can actually be done. And this is why discussions of culture never really get you anywhere; they simply serve to redirect the discourse from the actual, useful things we as a society can do to blaming black people for not being committed enough to not being poor. McWhorter is right when he says that “the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art,” but not in the way he thinks.

First thing we do, let’s kill all the tenured professors

Sloppy thinking about tenure abounds on the Internet. Not surprisingly, the major opponents to tenure are conservatives, academic and otherwise, whose “arguments” consist of leveling scurrilous charges against tenured professors. Not that there aren’t left critiques of tenure too, but since they’re virtually invisible, I’ma just ignore them for now.

A recent “story” at Slate examines this case and unsurprisingly finds it convincing. It really has all the hallmarks of terrible reporting: inapplicable analogies, numbers taking out of context, extensive citations from conservative critics with long records of writing about how horrible tenure is (while, paradoxically, enjoying the benefits of the institution themselves).

I mean, why would you even write this:

Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.

It sounds absurd in the context of the food-service industry—for both you and your staff. But this system has governed academia for decades.

TENURE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY! That’s not the rationale for why tenure exists, at all. Arguments by analogy are, in general horrible; you can’t just take an out-of-context scenario from one profession and transplant into another. Just because tenure might be an absurd idea in restaurants doesn’t mean it’s an absurd idea in academia, because there are qualitatively different imperatives at work in the two institutions.

Nor do the numbers make an ironclad case for eliminating tenure:

Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

The level of stupidity in this paragraph is just unbearable. So, let’s take it as a given that a university professor costs their institution between $10 and $12 million over the course of their time there. Is that a lot? A little? Who knows?! Compared to what? I guess it’s probably a lot if you want to pay professors the same as janitors, but there’s no obvious context for any of these numbers. So if universities tenured 15 fewer professors then ceteris paribus they’d be in the black? How about if more public funding went to our universities, maybe then they’d be in the black too! But no, obviously the answer is to get rid of people who are doing useful and interesting work because god forbid we might use public funds to reinforce the country’s intellectual infrastructure. That’s an unthinkable proposition for noted hack Mark Taylor.

Speaking of Taylor, it’s quite ironic that a professor of religion, surely one of the least useful titles in academia, should be advocating these cuts. Where does he think they’re going to come from, exactly? The engineering school? No, the engineering school has fellowships endowed by Intel and industry funding. You know whose neck they’re going to come for first, Mark Taylor? Yours. Of course then they’ll basically get rid of everyone who doesn’t bring in their own funding, leaving universities to be little better than technical institutes, but don’t think you’re going to escape the purge.

Other notable highlights:

  • Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy.

Well, does it, asshole?! But why do research when you can just fling unsubstantiated allegations (Critics say!) of unquantifiable moral turpitude at people. Critics of Chris Beam say writing dumb articles for slate makes him blow goats.

  • Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies

Does it? Who knows? Certainly not Ace Reporter Chris Beam. When I am King Shit of Reporting Mountain I will prohibit the use of the word “can” except as a direct citation backed by a graph. A pretty graph.

  • Besides, says Taylor, the idea that a tenured professor can finally “speak out” is absurd. “If you don’t have the guts to speak out before, you’re not gonna have it after.” Even tenured professors still have all kinds of incentives to keep their heads down. There’s still research to fund, administrators to placate, time off to negotiate.

Ah yes, I will certainly take contrarian Mark Taylor’s word for it. Certainly I have never heard of any professors ever speaking out on any topic of interest!

What’s really disappointing about this reporting is how much better it could have been. I bag on Taylor, but he’s written some fairly correct stuff on the decline of the university as a center for actual learning and on the over-production of graduate students. Those are real problems that, tenure or no tenure, should be tackled in some way, and ones that are worth reporting on. It’s also true that the tenure track tends to be unfair to women, a point which the article mentions but ends up basically glossing over. Of course, the real elephant in this room is the continued commercialization of the university, the endless proliferation of its administrative apparatus (which, let’s be honest here, eats up way more resources than some English professor), and the chronic unwillingness of the public to actually fund its educational institutions. Maybe tenure is a problem, maybe it’s not, but it’s so low on the totem pole that addressing it is like trying to extract the mote from your eye while you’re being impaled on a beam.

More Apple fuckery

Blah blah my shit does not work no one cares. Ok then.

Here’s the thing: I’m used to having to hack things to get them to work. As such, I think that package managers like apt-get have come a long, long way. Nowadays, I just don’t even think, I apt-get and forget about it. 99% of the time that just works and I am a happy camper. Sometimes there’s some weird thing that doesn’t but ever since probably Ubuntu 8.10 or so, the number of package issues I’ve had could probably be counted on one hand.

So now I am using this fancy pants MacBook Pro for work and it’s a pretty sweet machine all things considered. That said, it’s a huge pain in the ass because I want pretty emacs like what comes standard on pretty much all Linux distros and I can’t get pretty emacs. Instead I have something called Aquamacs which is ok too, I guess, but NOT THE SAME. Not the same because unlike the emacs in Linux I can’t figure out how to make this one run slime, which is a Lisp thing. That’s fine though; what’s irritating is the inability to run X applications in general. Ok, you want me to do Macports, I’ll do Macports. What’s that, Macports crashed trying to install X?! FUUUUUUCK. The existing Python that comes with the OS is weird and won’t do anything right; gotta install the images from python.org to get numpy and scipy and matplotlib to work nicely together. Also, for some reason this laptop refuses to read a perfectly cromulent disk that was burned on my home machine and reads just fine in my cheap-ass car stereo.

WHAT I AM SAYING: yeah, some things are easy in OS X, that’s cool. Some things are not so easy. Also this fucking magic mouse is a piece of shit and I want to punch whoever came up with this idea. I don’t even have colossal bear paws or anything but hey, I’m an adult male which means this tiny fucking mouse (which, by the way, is never pictured near an actual human hand to give you a sense of scale, all the pictures make it look really huge like it’s the size of a fucking house or something) is way too small for my hand. Thanks for the carpal tunnel syndrome, Apple! I should have asked for the ergonomic logitech which for some reason was like $100 at the apple store even though I bought almost the same goddamn mouse for $35 on Newegg.

And then the worst part is that you are like, ok, how do I use this thing and you read reviews of it and some dude is all like, “maybe this isn’t the greatest idea on the face of the earth,” and of course a bazillion Apple fanboys and fangirls and fangoats and fanjellyfish all jump into this thread and are like “NO YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND,” even though this guy totally gets why this mouse sucks. Stop being so devoted to some stupid fucking company, you assholes. They’re not your fucking saviors, and they make shitty products sometimes, like this stupid fucking mouse which is too small for my hands that are apparently larger than any hand of any person at Apple development HQ.

I like that little dock in OS X though. That’s nice. Also when the Adium duck hops up and down to let you know someone IM’ed you. Adorable.