23 May 2015

Getting a little chart-happy, are we?

I had to laugh watching the Rachel Maddow Show today. They showed a chart with a single number. Is there something about a chart that helps us understand what 17% means? I really hope that isn't the case.

22 May 2015

20 May 2015

The compassionate war on drugs

Hillary Clinton has been bringing up the issue of treatment for drug addicts. As Rachel Maddow noted in her show, this is interesting since the topic has been buried by all the typical media noise. The Huffington Post (typically, a fairly mediocre news site) happens to have an excellent article on addiction arguing that the leading cause of addiction is actually social isolation. The original article's long, but I leave you the following excerpt that discusses a policy experiment conducted in Portugal:

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world -- and so leave behind their addictions. This isn't theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them -- to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other's care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I'll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass -- and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example.

16 May 2015

Why college costs are rising

This was taken from a recent opinion piece that appeared in the NY Times:

 Interestingly, increased spending has not been going into the pockets of the typical professor. Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970. By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase. The rapid increase in college enrollment can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments. Even the explosion in administrative personnel is, at least in theory, defensible. On the other hand, there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators, unless one considers evidence-free assertions about “the market” to be intellectually rigorous. What cannot be defended, however, is the claim that tuition has risen because public funding for higher education has been cut. Despite its ubiquity, this claim flies directly in the face of the facts.

12 May 2015

When all is lost, bet the house!

In this recent game (I'm white), I'm playing terribly but continue to sacrifice in the faint hope of an opportunity. Then, two minor pieces down, I hit upon a nice four-move mating combination. Notice how black's piece advantage is temporarily of no consequence since the black bishop and rook are locked up and out of the game.

11 May 2015

Enjoying eternity with all those unimplanted eggs

Valerie Taraco, on Salon, ponders on heaven, concluding it would be quite hell-like if it existed as described in the Bible. One of her more amusing musings concerns the demographics of the saved:
Ninety-eight percent of Heaven’s occupants are embryos and toddlers. Human reproduction is designed as a big funnel. Most fertilized eggs die before implanting, followed by embryos and fetuses that self-abort, followed by babies and then little kids. A serious but startling statistical analysis by researcher Greg S. Paul suggests that if we include the “unborn,” more than 98 percent of Heaven’s inhabitants, some 350 billion, would be those who died before maturing to the point that they could voluntarily “accept the gift of salvation.” The vast majority of the heavenly host would be moral automatons or robots, meaning they never had moral autonomy and never chose to be there. Christian believers, ironically, would be a 1 to 2 percent minority even if all 30,000-plus denominations of believers actually made it in.
The theological implications are huge. Christian theologians typically explain evil by arguing that this was the best of all possible worlds, the only way to create free will and to develop moral virtues (like courage, compassion, forgiveness and so forth), to make us more Christ-like and prepare us for Heaven. But if we run the numbers, it appears that God didn’t need the whole free will—sin—redemption thing to fill his paradise with perfect beings because no suffering, evil, or moral freedom is actually required as a prelude to glory.
The ratio of adults to embryos has social implications as well. Pastoral counselors sometimes tell a women she will get to apologize in Heaven to the fetus she aborted, which will be a fully developed person there. As a psychologist, I don’t know what this means, because the brain and mind, our individuality and identity—our personhood—develop only via experience. Imagine if 98 percent of the “people” around you had never made a decision or felt sorrow or experienced anything akin to an adult conversationThe company of Mr. Robertson starts sounding not so bad.

7 May 2015

Alberta swerves left

Canadian politics doesn't usually make the news in the U.S., but the startling shift in Alberta toward the NDP is going to have repercussions further south, especially when it comes to the Keystone pipeline. Personally, since the U.S. is close to being the top producer of oil in the world, America's purported need to import even more oil eludes me. And now with all the oil trains exploding this year (there's been about one major catastrophe per month so far), it'll be interesting to see if the pipeline's financial backers can keep up the propaganda blitz.