Tuesday, 12 May 2015

That'll leave a mark

Here’s a phrase you never want to see in print (in a legal decision, no less) pertaining to your academic research: “The IRB process, however, was improperly engaged by the Dartmouth researcher and ignored completely by the Stanford researchers.”

Whole thing here; it’s a doozy.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

What could a federal UK look like?

Assuming that the “no” vote prevails in the Scottish independence referendum, the next question for the United Kingdom is to consider constitutional reform to implement a quasi-federal system and resolve the West Lothian question once and for all. In some ways, it may also provide an opportunity to resolve the stalled reform of the upper house as well. Here’s the rough outline of a proposal that might work.

  • Devolve identical powers to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with the proviso that local self-rule can be suspended if necessary by the federal legislature (by a supermajority).

  • The existing House of Commons becomes the House of Commons for England, which (along with the Sovereign) shall comprise the English Parliament. This parliament would function much as the existing devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales; the consociational structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly (requiring double majorities) would not be replicated.

  • The House of Lords is abolished, and replaced with a directly-elected Senate of the United Kingdom. The Senate will have authority to legislate on the non-devolved powers (in American parlance, “delegated” powers) such as foreign and European Union affairs, trade and commerce, national defense, and on matters involving Crown dependencies and territories, the authority to legislate on devolved matters in the event self-government is suspended in a constituent country, and dilatory powers including a qualified veto (requiring a supermajority) over the legislation proposed by a constituent country’s parliament. The latter power would effectively replace the review powers of the existing House of Lords; it would function much as the Council of Revision in Madison’s original plan for the U.S. Constitution.

    As the Senate will have relatively limited powers, it need not be as large as the existing Lords or Commons. To ensure the countries other than England have a meaningful voice, given that nearly 85% of the UK’s population is in England, two-thirds of the seats would be allocated proportionally based on population and one-third allocated equally to the four constituent countries. This would still result in a chamber with a large English majority (around 64.4%) but nonetheless would ensure the other three countries would have meaningful representation as well.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Soccer queries answered

Kevin Drum asks a bunch of questions about soccer:

  1. Outside the penalty area there’s a hemisphere about 20 yards wide. I can’t recall ever seeing it used for anything. What’s it for?
  2. On several occasions, I’ve noticed that if the ball goes out of bounds at the end of stoppage time, the referee doesn’t whistle the match over. Instead, he waits for the throw-in, and then immediately whistles the match over. What’s the point of this?
  3. Speaking of stoppage time, how has it managed to last through the years? I know, I know: tradition. But seriously. Having a timekeeper who stops the clock for goals, free kicks, etc. has lots of upside and no downside. Right? It wouldn’t change the game in any way, it would just make timekeeping more accurate, more consistent, and more transparent for the fans and players. Why keep up the current pretense?
  4. What’s the best way to get a better sense of what’s a foul and what’s a legal tackle? Obviously you can’t tell from the players’ reactions, since they all writhe around like landed fish if they so much as trip over their own shoelaces. Reading the rules provides the basics, but doesn’t really help a newbie very much. Maybe a video that shows a lot of different tackles and explains why each one is legal, not legal, bookable, etc.?

The first one’s easy: there’s a general rule that no defensive player can be within 10 yards of the spot of a direct free kick. A penalty kick (which is a type of direct free kick) takes place in the 18-yard box, and no players other than the player taking the kick and the goalkeeper are allowed in the box. However, owing to geometry, the 18 yard box and the 10 yard exclusion zone don’t fully coincide, hence the penalty arc. (That’s also why there are two tiny hash-marks on the goal line and side line 10 yards from the corner flag. And why now referees have a can of shaving cream to mark the 10 yards for other free kicks, one of the few MLS innovations that has been a good idea.)

Second one’s also easy: the half and the game cannot end while the ball is out of play.

Third one’s harder. First, keeping time inexactly forestalls the silly premature celebrations that are common in most US sports. You’d never see the Stanford-Cal play happen in a soccer game. Second, it allows some slippage for short delays and doesn’t require exact timekeeping; granted, this was more valuable before instant replays and fourth officials, but most US sports require a lot of administrative record-keeping by ancillary officials. A soccer game can be played with one official (and often is, particularly at the amateur level) without having to change timing rules;* in developing countries in particular this lowers the barriers to entry for the sport (along with the low equipment requirements) without changing the nature of the game appreciably. Perhaps most importantly, if the clock was allowed to stop regularly it would create an excuse for commercial timeouts and advertising breaks, which would interrupt the flow of the game and potentially reduce the advantages of better-conditioned and more skilled athletes. (MLS tried this, along with other exciting American ideas like “no tied games,” and it was as appealing to actual soccer fans as ketchup on filet mignon would be to a foodie, and perhaps more importantly didn’t make any non-soccer fans watch.)

Fourth, the key distinction is usually whether there was an obvious attempt to play the ball; in addition, in the modern game, even some attempts to play the ball are considered inherently dangerous (tackling from behind, many sliding tackles, etc.) and therefore are fouls even if they are successful in getting more ball than human.

* To call offside, you’d also probably need what in my day we called a “linesman.”

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The mission and vision thing

Probably the worst-kept non-secret is that the next stage of the institutional evolution of my current employer is to some ill-defined concept of “university status,” which mostly involves the establishment of some to-be-determined master’s degree programs. In the context of the University System of Georgia, it means a small jump from the “state college” prestige tier (a motley collection of schools that largely started out as two-year community colleges and transfer institutions) to the “state university” tier (which is where most of the ex-normal schools hang out these days). What is yet to be determined is how that transition will affect the broader institution that will be the University of Middle Georgia.* People on high are said to be working on these things; in any event, here are my assorted random thoughts on what might be reasonable things to pursue:

  • Marketing and positioning: Unlike the situation facing many of the other USG institutions, the population of the two anchor counties of our core service area (Bibb and Houston) is growing, and Houston County in particular has a statewide reputation for the quality of its public school system. Rather than conceding that the most prepared students from these schools will go to Athens or Atlanta or Valdosta, we should strongly market our institutional advantages over these more “prestigious” institutions, particularly in terms of the student experience in the first two years and the core curriculum: we have no large lecture courses, no teaching assistants, no lengthy bus rides to and from class every day, and the vast majority of the core is taught by full-time faculty with terminal degrees. Not to mention costs to students are much lower, particularly in the case of students who do not qualify for need-based aid. Even if we were to “lose” these students as transfers to the top-tier institutions after 1–4 semesters, we’d still benefit from the tuition and fees they bring in and we would not be penalized in the upcoming state performance funding formula. Dual enrollment in Warner Robins in particular is an opportunity to showcase our institution as a real alternative for better prepared students rather than a safety school.
  • Comprehensive offerings at the bachelor’s level: As a state university, we will need to offer a comprehensive range of options for bachelor’s students to attract and retain students, both traditional and nontraditional. In particular, B.S. degrees in political science and sociology with emphasis in applied empirical skills would meet public and private employer demand for workers who have research skills and the ability to collect, manage, understand, and use data appropriately. There are other gaps in the liberal arts and sciences as well that need to be addressed to become a truly comprehensive state university.
  • Create incentives to boost the residential population: The college currently has a heavy debt burden inherited from the overbuilding of dorms at the Cochran campus. We need to identify ways to encourage students to live in Cochran, which may require public-private partnerships to try to build a “college town” atmosphere in the community near campus. We also need to work with wireless providers like Sprint and T-Mobile to ensure that students from the “big city” can fully use their cell phones and tablets in Cochran and Eastman without roaming fees or changing wireless providers.
  • Tie the institution more closely to the communities we serve: This includes both physical ties and psychological ties. The Macon campus in particular has poor physical links to the city itself for students who might walk or ride bicycles; extending the existing bike/walking trail from Wesleyan to the Macon campus should be a priority, as should pedestrian access and bike facilities along Columbus Road. Access to the Warner Robins campus is somewhat better but still could be improved. More generally, the institution is perceived as an afterthought or alternative of last resort in the community. Improving this situation and perception among community leaders and political figures may require a physical presence in or near downtown Macon, perhaps in partnership with the GCSU Graduate Center.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Paulites don't act like Republicans, surprised RNC doesn't treat them as GOPers

More mildly amusing reportage from Paulista/desperate book shill/journalist Brian Doherty on the Rodney Dangerfield-level of respect the Paulite delegates are receiving at the sorta-kinda-still-on GOP convention in Tampa. Shockingly, an institution designed on the premise that everyone airs their disagreements in the nomination process and then comes together behind the eventual nominee is reacting poorly to people who participate in the process but then decide to take their ball and go home when the process doesn’t work out the way they wanted.

Then again, reading the tepid reactions to Gary Johnson’s appearance, it doesn’t quite sound like the Paul crowd has much interest in electing anyone not named “Ron Paul” to public office, regardless of party label attached. Maybe they should work on legalizing cloning to fix that problem.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

On the duty of advocates to be honest with the public

TollRoadsNews, a staple of my daily Google Reader diet, is an interesting blend of news on developments in the toll road industry (as the name would imply) with the often-unhinged rants of site proprietor Peter Samuel on developments in the toll road industry. Of late, most of these rants have been in support of the beleaguered owners of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, who have so spectacularly failed in their efforts to make friends and influence people in the Detroit-Windsor area that politicians on both sides of the border have decided to put them out of business once and for all by building a nearby bridge to siphon off the company’s traffic; the latter are so irritated, in fact, that they’d apparently rather spend hundreds of millions on a new project from scratch than just exercise eminent domain over the Ambassador Bridge, which presumably would be a far less expensive option.

Today, however, Samuel turns his ire on a local TV reporter in Houston who has the temerity to point out that the Harris County Toll Road Authority has reneged on a promise made in the 1980s to remove tolls once the Sam Houston and Hardy toll roads were completed and their initial construction costs were recovered. Now, it is true that circumstances have changed since those promises were made, but it is also true that the promise was made in the first place and that similar promises made elsewhere have, at times, actually been fulfilled (for example, in the case of the Kentucky parkway system, albeit in some cases due to the generosity of the federal taxpayer at the behest of Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky).

At the very least, the public is owed an explanation from those who made the promises as to why they were not fulfilled, particularly if the initial promises were disingenuous, at best. I don’t think Samuel would disagree with this notion in the general case (for example, given his apparently-conservative politics, I’d imagine he’d have rather choice words for the Obamacare advocates who are championing its mythical cost-savings), so it is disappointing that in this particular case he seems to be giving public-sector tollers a pass.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

cnlmisc 0.2 for R

The oft-promised update of the cnlmisc package for R is now posted. New in this release is a convenience method, sepplot, that produces separation plots using the separationplot package; this method works directly on model fit objects as a post-estimation call, and works with both binary and ordinal models at present. In addition, epcp now works with clm2 objects from the ordinal package.

Most of this was motivated by continued work on the economic voting paper, which has also been updated. cnlmisc still has a long way to go before I submit it to CRAN, but at least it’s progress, right?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Why read the minds of the Framers when we can read what they wrote?

In the midst of a rant against Team Red, James Fallows makes the following observation:

As with equal representation for all states in the Senate, real-world circumstances have changed so dramatically in the past 230+ years that the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would never have suggested that the details of their scheme should be applied, unaltered, in the 21st century. [italics mine]

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution didn’t think that every state should be entitled to equal representation in the Senate forever. If only there had been some way to include provisions in the constitution that expired, could be amended, or only applied to some states—for example, the Constitution could have still guaranteed equal numbers of Senators for each state that existed at the time of ratification, which would have still effected the Great Compromise between large and small states, but might have made no such guarantee for future states, the admission of which were clearly anticipated in the text. That they didn’t suggests that they thought that equal representation of the states in the Senate to be an important value of the constitutional order they established.

And, of course, the Framers designed the Constitution’s scheme to be alterable. If, sometime in the last 230 years, societal consensus had evolved to produce a more Hamiltonian view of the powers of the federal government vis à vis the states, surely the Constitution could have been amended to provide for that consensus to be enshrined into it. The fact the Constitution has laid effectively dormant for 40 years speaks more to the fact judicial whims have evolved to “constitutionalize” changes that in the past would be done by amendment than some inherent difficulty in amending the Constitution in the first place.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Rooting for laundry counterfactual

Assume, for the moment, that the Supreme Court rules that the mandate does not exceed Congress’ powers under the commerce and necessary and proper clauses. (This assumption was probably a safe one for most progressives until Tuesday morning.) The ruling sparks howls of outrage and Republicans win comfortable majorities in Congress this November and Mitt Romney takes the White House.

Congress subsequently determines that Americans can no longer feel sufficiently secure in their homes. Law enforcement, while adequate in some parts of the country, is seriously deficient in others; the rich can hire private security to protect their life, liberty, and property, but no such luck for everyone else. This lack of human security is adversely affecting the national economy; people are losing wages due to injury and death that might be prevented by deterring violent crime. Accordingly, Congress decides, pursuant to its power under the commerce and necessary and proper clauses, to pass a law requiring all Americans over the age of 18 to purchase a firearm. Not just any firearm—because Congress has decided there might be a need to shoot at an intruder from a distance and avoid disturbing the neighbors, the firearm must be equipped with a scope and a suppressor (“silencer”), even though most Americans will never need to shoot anyone at a distance or without waking up the neighbors. And, to ensure that there will not be any shortage of bullets, all firearms complying with the mandate must fire a standard cartridge, so many existing firearms will have to either be retrofitted or replaced to comply. The poor will receive a subsidy sufficient to purchase a firearm meeting these standards. Individuals not presenting proof of ownership of a firearm annually, as part of their tax return, will receive a non-tax penalty for non-compliance, which will be garnished from IRS refunds but otherwise not collected. This law is passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by President Romney.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: find some way to distinguish the Obamacare case, Florida v. Health and Human Services, from this hypothetical.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

To live or die on the mandate

As everyone knows, it’s Obamacare Week at the Supreme Court (perhaps the less interesting version of Teen Week on Jeopardy!), and today was the main-event showdown over the constitutionality of the mandate. All observers agree it wasn’t the Solicitor General’s finest hour, but Supreme Court cases aren’t really decided by the quality of the oral argument in most cases, and the SG is playing with house money anyway—across the history of the Supreme Court, the solicitor general usually wins (around 70–75% of the time).

Leaving aside the tea leaves, and the wishful thinking that typified people on both sides of the debate going in, the question that strikes me is why the law’s defenders have become so hung up on the mandate question itself. Barack Obama himself campaigned against it in the primaries back in 2008, and even today most people acknowledge that the only real harm from a lack of a mandate would accrue to the insurance companies who’d be stuck taking all comers without getting a mandatory buy-in from the young and healthy, who last I checked were hardly at the top of most liberals’ Christmas card lists. Even there the harm can’t be that great; Obamacare expands Medicaid eligibility substantially, and most of the young and healthy will be staying on parents’ insurance policies well into their twenties (except for, ironically enough, the military’s TRICARE plan). Abolishing the individual mandate wouldn’t get rid of the employer mandate (indeed, neither side is contesting the constitutionality of that). If adverse selection does drive insurers out of business—a big if—doesn’t that just put us one step closer to the single-payer system that liberals (and even some libertarian-leaning conservatives like James Joyner) support?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Back to the olden days

Michael Waterstone in a post about a Supreme Court case that I really don’t know anything about one way or another writes about Justice Scalia’s concurrence in the judgment in said case:

But to Justice Scalia, this means that (except for race discrimination, which he views as different for stare decisis reasons), he would limit Congress’s Section 5 power to conduct that itself violates the Fourteenth Amendment. I find this flat out wrong. As a textual matter, Section 5 gives Congress the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment by appropriate legislation. If all Congress can do is outlaw that which is already unconstitutional, what is the point?

It would seem to me (at least) that the major point of the 14th Amendment was to confer to Congress and the federal government more broadly the power to enforce, upon the states, at least some of the guarantees embodied in the Constitution that had previously been held under Barron v. Baltimore (1833) not to be so-enforceable, in essence to expand Congress’ enumerated powers to encompass enforcement of the amendment itself (which it would not have, absent the Supreme Court reinterpreting Article I of the Constitution to imply Congress has some sort of power to do things that aren’t listed there and not necessary or proper to do the things listed there).

Perhaps viewed through a modern lens where the judiciary routinely has the backing of the executive and legislative branches to overrule the decisions of state governments, such a power seems rather trivial, but in the context of the 1860s when state laws were rarely challenged by the federal government (and when the scope and powers of the federal government were interpreted so narrowly as to rarely infringe on what the states wanted to do) I think explicitly stating Congress had such a power to enforce a new provision of the Constitution, particularly since the 14th Amendment was only the second (after the 13th) to expand the powers of the federal government at the expense of the states (again, given that the Bill of Rights was generally seen at the time as to only apply to the national government, and that the 11th Amendment had actually reduced the powers of the federal government), is hardly meaningless or self-evident.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Cheap costume for your local Mass Effect 3 midnight opening

Here it is, in all its glory:

  1. Go to your local office supply store and get some Avery 5395 labels.
  2. Print this on them.

You’re welcome.

An aside comment on the "Best Star Wars Film" debate

While I don’t want to wade too deeply into the argument, seemingly initiated by Kevin Drum’s rather absurd notion that Return of the Jedi is the best of the six* Star Wars films, regarding the relative merits of the various films in the series (see also: Doug Mataconis at OTB and Seth Masket), I do want to raise a minor point in response to Dan Drezner on the politics (or lack thereof) in the triology:

The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor’s wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin’s lust for power, and Darth Sidious’ grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.

To a political scientist, that’s good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it’s tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.

While I’m slightly sympathetic to Dan’s argument here, the reality is that the politics of the prequel trilogy are, in a word, silly, even leaving aside arguments about whether one would plausibly construct an elective, term-limited monarchy in which the only valid candidates for office are teenage girls, or what sane society would elect the likes of Jar Jar Binks to high office (ok, maybe that one is more credible). Sure, there are depictions of politics, but only within the context of political structures that make no sense, such as the Senate of the Republic (there’s a reason that real legislatures don’t have membership sizes in excess of the population of a mid-sized city) and the Jedi Council (there’s also a reason that real legislatures governing groups of people in the millions have more than a half-dozen, self-selected members).

Slathering on a layer of thinly-veiled BusHitler allegory doesn’t exactly help matters either, if only because in 20 years nobody will get the point Lucas was belaboring—to illustrate the point, imagine if Lucas had taken a 20-minute detour during Empire Strikes Back to establish some boring parallel between the political ascents of “black mayors” Walter Washington and Lando Calrissian, perhaps by giving Lando a bunch of long-winded, boring speeches that paralleled the racial politics of the early 1980s, and then imagine how that would play today.

The other problem of course is that the politics depicted in the prequels is boring. Politics of course need not be boring (for example, the writers of Parks and Recreation manage to make politics entertaining on a weekly basis), but in the hands of Lucas—who’s obviously more interested in the prequels in advancing plot only to serve as a scaffolding for spectacle rather than having the CGI elements there in service of a sensible plot—most of the politics gets reduced to tedious speeches and arguments in what seem to be shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from academic department meetings. In the hands of a skilled writer (or, perhaps more charitably, a writer who cared) I have no doubt the political machinations promised in the prequels might have been interesting; as presented, the Wikipedia summaries of them are positively life-like by comparison.

* Part of me wishes there were only three, but that might edge into the territory of Frequent Commenter Scott’s denial that the sport that is played in the American League qualifies as “baseball.”

Thursday, 16 February 2012

In which I risk seeming in agreement with Rick Santorum

It seems to me that if one’s goal is to reduce the escalating costs of health care (or at least reduce the rate of escalation of those costs), it would be rather counterproductive to increase people’s consumption of health care resources. Yet a number of policies, all implemented or encouraged by the present administration, have done so:

  • Obamacare proper required all health care plans to get rid of co-pays for many routine office visits to physicians.
  • The DEA‘s War on Meth and People with Colds has pushed two states (Mississippi and Oregon) to the point of requiring a prescription for dispensing any effective cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, and many other states require it to be controlled behind the counter. Already one idiotic prosecutor has gone after someone trying to evade this silly requirement. Ten years from now, if not sooner, I have good money that says the feds will be going after “meth doctors” who are “overprescribing” pseudoephedrine, à la Oxycontin, and pharmacies who are “oversupplying” it.
  • Now, we have the administration requiring health care plans to provide women with birth control without a co-pay. Never mind the evidence that women on the pill have worse taste in men.

I get that these things are politically popular and/or support politicians’ desires to Look Tough On Drugs. I also get that women who cannot afford birth control probably should have that expense covered in full. What I don’t get is why these mandated “no-co-pay” coverages aren’t means-tested in some way to at least try to keep costs under control for the large share of the population who can reasonably afford some out-of-pocket health care expenses—indeed, our entire federal income tax system is structured, in part, around the idea that 7.5% of your AGI is expected to be dedicated to health care and thus cannot be deducted, even if you itemize deductions.

Finally, I conclude with the following two necessary caveats: (a) I have no particular truck with the moral positions of the Catholic Church or other churches with similar positions on birth control, and think if they want to employ people they can either provide health care coverage or pay the fines/taxes for not providing it, and (b) employer-based health care in general is a stupid way to accomplish universal coverage, and given that we seem to have decided that universal health care coverage is desirable it follows that some form of single-payer or government-subsidized system is preferable, particularly if you’re going to have a nominally private system that is totally loaded down with mandated coverages (aka unfunded mandates), must-issue rules, and uniform premiums. Hence I think some sort of subsistence level universal government-paid system, with rationing-by-queueing and ward-type inpatient service, is inevitable (if not desirable), and as long as individuals are free to pay (or buy supplemental insurance) to upgrade their place in line and to the Beyoncé Birthing Suite, I can’t say I have any particular problem with it.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Perusing the shelves at Wal-Mart this weekend I picked up Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, which is a very long-winded title for something relatively simple: a three-episode preview of the upcoming Blu-Ray transfers of the series. Unlike TOS, where they took the original film and replaced the model work and primitive effects shots with modern CG elements, here CBS has mostly recomposited the original film and model-based effects shots, so basically what you’re getting is a much clearer picture of what was originally shot—instead of copies from the broadcast master tapes at 480i60, you’re getting scanned film at 1080p24. Everything basically looks great.

The episode selection is pretty decent, as well, although two of the choices are relatively light on effects shots. First you get the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” squished together as a single episode (as originally aired? I’ve never seen it except as a two-parter), in all its glory—including the near-legendary cringe-worthy overacting from Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis, and Michael Dorn. Granted, all three (Sirtis in particular) are saddled with some pretty terrible dialogue to begin with; indeed, almost surprisingly, Wil Wheaton and Jonathan Frakes are the only actors whose dialogue generally works throughout, while Patrick Stewart at least manages to ham up some of his more absurd dialogue to the point it works (for example, his expository announcements to nobody-in-particular on the bridge before they get to Farpoint), and Brent Spiner’s Data at least is decently-written when he isn’t on the bridge. Nobody’s going to accuse this of being great television by the standards of 2012, although with some judicious editing you might be able to come up with a 90-minute episode that made sense. Obviously this is the most FX-heavy of the episodes included, and it looks great, even if it’s the worst Trek pilot ever (including both TOS pilots—for my money, DS9’s “Emissary” is historically the best).

You also get season 3’s “Sins of the Father,” which benefits more from the transfer quality than you might think; the second half of the episode, set on the Klingon home world, where every set was dimly-lit, always looked like a dark mess on TV, but here everything is clear. It’s also a far better-written episode, which makes it a rather less painful experience for repeat viewing, with some nice humor (much of it stemming from Kurn’s fish-out-of-water status on the Enterprise) despite the dark subject matter. Even if Picard does still send the Enterprise to the “first city of the Klingon Imperial Empire,” which is just a little bit redundant.

Finally you get season 5’s “The Inner Light,” a legendary TNG episode. I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, but as one of the great real science fiction stories (as opposed to space opera stories) in Trek it’s one I’m really looking forward to, even though again it is not a particularly effects-heavy outing.

At retail I think it might be a little over-priced for what you get—but then again compared to a new-release Blu-ray movie $15ish isn’t bad for essentially three hours of entertainment, albeit three hours you’ve probably seen before. I can’t imagine myself splurging for the whole collection but hopefully the transfers also find their way to Netflix and other online streaming sites in due course.

Friday, 3 February 2012

On false equivalencies

A public service announcement, in absolutely no way inspired by the current debate over Komen’s funding of Planned Parenthood, follows:

If you are comparing your contemporary domestic political opponents (say, pro-choicers or pro-lifers) to the Viet Cong, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or the Taliban, it seems to me that one of two conclusions obtain:

  1. You should be willing to support the same level of political violence against the contemporary domestic opponents as you would against the other actors. For example, a pro-lifer who believes that Planned Parenthood is morally equivalent to the Nazis who would support assassinating concentration camp guards should also be willing to support assassinating doctors who perform abortions; similarly, a pro-choicer who thinks someone who supports sonogram bills is the moral equivalent of the Taliban, who supports the targeted killing of Taliban fighters in AfPak, should also support killing politicians who support sonogram bills.
  2. Or, if you are unwilling to take your positions to their logical conclusion, you should tone down your rhetoric so that the apparent equivalency you have expressed is no longer seen by external observers as an equivalency. Or, if you are unable to do so, just be quiet.

This might, for example, also apply to anyone who argues that supporters of Voter ID laws are channeling the spirit of Lester Maddox, or anyone who says that people who support socializing the costs of medicine are latter day Che Guevaras.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

You had me until the last paragraph

This NYT article on Pomona College dismissing 15 workers who were unable to present evidence of their legal presence and right to work had me mildly sympathetic to the various workers’ plight, until the second-to-last paragraph rolled around and I had a “WTF?” moment:

Still, it does little to reassure Carmen, 30, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of alerting immigration officials. Carmen had worked at the college for 11 years, using the money she earned to put herself through a public college. But she never looked for another job, fearing that she would not be able to produce the proper documents. For years she made about $8 an hour, but in recent years raises had increased her wages to nearly $17 an hour. She and her husband bought a modest home in nearby Pomona this fall and moved in just two weeks before she was fired.

“I really don’t know what I am going to do,” she said, adding that her options were to look for work that paid in cash or move back to Mexico with her 2-year-old son while her husband, an American citizen, stayed here. “I’m still in shock. This is the only thing I’ve really ever known.”

So, to review, Carmen is legally married to a U.S. citizen, and presumably has been for a while. Thus she is eligible to legally emigrate to, and then legally work in, the United States, and presumably has been for a while. According to the government, she may not even have to leave the country to do so.

Again I accept, and even sympathize with, the argument that many people come illegally (or, almost as commonly, overstay their legal immigration visas) in part because they are ineligible to “stand in line” for legal status because they lack citizen immediate relatives, or would have to wait for years under the quota limits for relatives, as Greg Weeks often points out. But in the cases of people who are eligible to immediately normalize their status and comply with the law, as it appears this particular individual is, and apparently just can’t be bothered to do so, my sympathy meter is pretty much pegged on empty.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

(Not) achieving the impossible

Mike Munger catches the government doing what government does, rather oafishly: in this case, fining companies for their failure to use enough cellulose-based ethanol, a product that is not even commercially available. The mind boggles.

On the other hand, imagine the possibilities of such an “incentive” program. Fine Boeing a few billion dollars a year for their failure to achieve faster-than-light travel, and I’m sure that we’ll have warp speed in no time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Obama's medical marijuana policy going to pot

The folks at Reason have been keeping a rather keen eye on the escalation of the Obama administration’s war on medical marijuana; the latest salvo is apparently going to involve aggressive prosecutions of those advertising dispensaries, along with targeting landlords and other property owners whose tenants are dispensing pot, regardless of state licensing. Considering that the average Democrat supports legalizing pot outright,* and polls show even wider support for medical marijuana, the administration’s increasingly anti-pot position seems a bit inexplicable on the surface. However, I do think there are two potential explanations for this seemingly-conservative shift on the issue:

  1. Presidential politics: Most of the medical marijuana facilities are in California, a state that Obama has virtually no chance of losing in 2012. The policy is actually designed to shore up Obama’s support in swing states, where medical marijuana is not legal and the administration’s policy can be spun as “tough on drugs and crime.”
  2. Assertion of national authority against nullification more broadly: Although one would think that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich, which (contrary to a line of Supreme Court cases leading to that point) found that non-commercial, intrastate activity, such as marijuana use, could be regulated under the commerce power, had settled the power of the national government to continue to regulate marijuana as a controlled substance, the behavior of the states that adopted medical marijuana laws has effectively advanced the doctrine of nullification, albeit this time from the left rather than its traditional home on the right. By cracking down on medical marijuana, the Obama administration is signalling that other nullification efforts, such as state laws against participation in ObamaCare and REAL ID, along with other efforts by states to make end-runs around federal policies, will be dealt with in a similar fashion.

The latter explanation, in particular, would explain the rather vehement reaction of the administration over the past couple of years to medical marijuana as other state-level efforts to nullify or crowd out federal policymaking prerogatives have emerged. But I’m certainly open to entertaining other theories.

* According to the 2010 General Social Survey, 52.0% of Democrats and Democrat-leaners supported legalization of marijuana (margin of error: ±4.0%).

Cross-posted at OTB

Thursday, 29 September 2011

See you November 7, 2012

When you read a blog post about the dollar coin and realize that the reason the author—who is a presumably intelligent mainstream Republican who was instrumental in reviving the dollar coin in the first place—only is arguing against any aggressive effort to replace the dollar bill with the dollar coin because there are some people in the Tea Party that support it, and thus can use some minor issues with replacing the dollar bill as bludgeons to argue against Tea Partiers in general (he actually tries to make the argument, presumably with a straight face, that taking the dollar bill out of circulation is somehow an “unfunded mandate,” and that minting a few billion coins is a greater exercise in corporate welfare for miners than keeping Crane’s cotton-based paper business in profit), it’s hard to draw any conclusion except that everyone has caught a case of campaign-induced stupidity and that there’s virtually no point in paying attention to most political commentary on any issue in domestic politics for the next 13 months.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Forest of the dead

If my Facebook feed is anything to judge by, this interview with political science professor Benjamin Ginsburg on the growth of administrative bloat in American universities has struck a bit of a nerve. Ginsburg advances his thesis in a new book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, due out soon from Oxford University Press.

Inside Higher Ed reporter Dan Berret summarizes the core of Ginsburg’s argument as follows:

[U]niversities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them. “Armies of staffers pose a threat by their very existence,” he wrote. “They may seem harmless enough at their tiresome meetings but if they fall into the wrong hands, deanlets can become instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction.”

On the other hand, anonymous community college administrator Dean Dad coincidentally today attributes much administrative growth to regulation and the expansion of information technology, which is at least partially the case as well.

Both accounts, however, seem to leave out the faculty incentive structures that promote bloat, particularly outside the rarefied R1 air at Johns Hopkins and Cornell that Ginsburg has breathed in his career. Simply put, for most tenured faculty at regional comprehensives and other lower-tier institutions, the only route to a higher salary is to join in the administrative featherbedding. The vast majority of faculty post-tenure don’t have the research record to compete for tenured lines at flagships, even if they had the interest in pursuing such an agenda in the first place, and a move up the status hierarchy into a non-tenured position—effectively starting over—is precluded by norms that emphasize, particularly at top-level institutions, gambling on the potential upside of a newly-minted PhD rather than taking on faculty with demonstrated, but perhaps unspectacular, experience balancing teaching and research.

So, the only way out is administration. For the non-ambitiously-mobile without a research record, an administrative appointment is an easy source for an immediate pay increase by getting a year-round contract (which is not as bad as it may sound, as you still get much of the Christmas holiday off and a paid vacation on top of that, making the “12-month contract” effectively closer to a 10–11 month one), on top of a potential pay increase associated with the position itself, and relief from teaching one or more classes per semester—which, at an institution without TAs, may lead to a net workload decrease even accounting for that associated with the administrative appointment. Recognizing this incentive structure, it can’t be surprising that more than a few tenured faculty spend much of their time dreaming up ways to create new administrative positions—program directorships, assistant chair positions, associate deanships, honors and study abroad coordinating positions—with a view to becoming the first incumbent.

What of the upwardly or elsewherely mobile academic? The same incentives apply to them too. Even if you’re not in it for the long haul, creating your own bailiwick and running it for a few years may just be the line on your vita you need to move to a more desirable position. When a small liberal arts college is looking for a study abroad director, or a regional comprehensive needs to hire an outside chair, the record of a “deadwood associate” just isn’t going to cut it, but if you’ve got a few years under your belt directing a boutique program, you can easily spin the lack of productivity post-tenure in research as a “sacrifice” rather than a personal choice.

Structurally there isn’t much to be done to alleviate this problem, absent a strong will from the top to clearly delineate “administration” (supervisory positions worthy of 12-month appointments) from “extensive faculty service” (positions largely centered on work during the academic year worthy of release time and/or stipends for summer work, but often receiving neither in the current climate) and shift as much of the former to the latter category. But as long as service remains woefully undervalued relative to the time it takes, even non-ambitious faculty will quite sensibly—at least from their own perspective—push back and ally themselves with others with more pecuniary motives.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Silence in the library

Paul Burka at Texas Monthly connects all the dots in Rick Perry’s plan to remold Texas’ two flagship higher education systems. At some level, though, I can’t blame Perry as much as the allegedly-well-meaning liberals down the food chain who spend a lot of time before faculty distancing themselves from Perry’s policies yet implement them (and, worse, hare-brained, half-thought-out extensions of them) with the zeal of a convert. At the flagships at least faculty and campus administrators appear to have grown a pair and recognize the threat Phoenixization/Capellaization of the academy—the ultimate end-point of the Perry agenda—poses; in the relative boonies of the A&M System, not so much.

Update: More here. And today UT’s leadership is at least making the right noises, confirming that at least one university system in Texas isn’t completely tone-deaf.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

So long and thanks for all the fish

A few parting comments as I “virtually” turn out the lights:

First and foremost, there’s no immediate reason to worry about me. There’s no specific reason for my decision; nobody’s come to me and said “X would have happened if you didn’t have a blog.” Nor am I embarking on some ultra-secret endeavor that puts me under a gag rule. Having said that, this coming academic year is time for my third-year review—which, to those who are unfamiliar with how academia works, essentially means that what I’ve done so far will be closely scrutinized and that it’s prudent to begin actively seeking other employment options regardless of how the review turns out. I have no reason to believe it will be unfavorable (and I believe my C.V. stacks up well against those of colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences who have just been reviewed or will be reviewed along with me), but then again I have not been told to expect a favorable review either.

Second, once all of that is resolved the spirit may move me to return to blogging here. In the meantime, I plan to continue occasionally contributing at Outside the Beltway as the spirit moves me. (Those who use an feed reader may find this link to my feed handy, although I certainly recommend reading all of my fellow OTBers as well.) You can find short-form content at my Twitter feed, and a giant melange of stuff I’ve found interesting at FriendFeed. More professional stuff can be found at my professional site and my Academia.edu page.

However, there’s no need to delete your bookmarks. I plan to keep this site available indefinitely, and the “Stuff you should read” and “Random thoughts…” blocks will continue to update (so long as Twitter and Google Reader continue to cooperate). If I do eventually decide to return to blogging, I’ll announce it here first, and if I have any particularly exciting news to share with a broader audience I may post it here (even if I don’t formally resume the blog).

On my way out the door, I’d like to thank my readers; my former co-contributors Robert Prather and Brock Sides; and all the folks (readers and fellow bloggers alike) I’ve met over the years due to the blog. See ya!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Making the beast dead

In what some have said is an “end of an era” and others have suggested is an event 4–6 years overdue, Signifying Nothing will be signing off—if not permanently, certainly for the foreseeable future—by the end of June. I still plan to contribute to Outside the Beltway (perhaps even on a more regular basis, given the discontinuation of this blog), and those who must hear my briefer thoughts on non-OTB-worthy matters may either follow me on Twitter, FriendFeed, or (if I know you, above an incredibly low threshold of “know”) Facebook.

There are a few reasons for the blog to come to an end. Probably foremost is that the world has moved on and others (with far bigger audiences) usually have something to say about a matter of interest before I find the time to comment on it in any detail. Twitter and my Google Reader shared items feed have essentially taken over any need for shorter, “go read this” posts, which leaves only sporadic content for a real blog.

The second reason, which I suppose matters more to me than to my readers, is that this blog really only worked when I was willing to discuss my thoughts in a much more unfiltered manner. Even though I’ve never used this forum in a way that might undermine collegiality, I have come to appreciate more that taken out of context—which much content on the Internet inevitably is, due to search engines—some of my more unguarded thoughts might be seen as representing more general attitudes that some might find as a convenient excuse to use to undermine future professional opportunities.

Being in a tenure-track position also, paradoxically, places me in the position for the first time of not being able to be quite as forthright about the serious issues that exist in academia generally and political science specifically. (I leave aside the paper trail of political views that would put me simultaneously outside the mainstream of academia and those of the American public at large yet somehow somewhere in between them, which certainly is a recipe for loathing from all sides.) I have no direct evidence that the blog has harmed my potential professional status to date, but frankly at this point in my career I feel the need to play it “safer” than I have in the past, and Signifying Nothing is an inevitable casualty of that decision.

Farewell; it’s been an interesting 7½ year trip.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Another year bites the dust

My sixth year of full-time teaching is now at an end. Overall I think it went well, although I missed my target grade distributions in both of my upper division classes (too tough in Congress & The Presidency; too easy in Political System of the USA). One of these decades I’ll get it right.

I’m now looking forward to a very busy summer, including a conference, AP exam reading, two summer courses to teach, and three or four research projects in various stages from completely unwritten (my APSA paper) to on the verge of journal submission (my Midwest paper with Scott and Adolphus). After all of that, I’ll probably be looking forward to a relatively restful three-course semester with only one totally-new-to-me course, the first semester of graduate research methods.