Earning the Grade

Writing papers is always a struggle for me. My best, and most natural writing is what you see on this blog - completely unedited save for spelling as I type, I can place an idea down and leave it alone. Essays aren't quite so friendly. For them, you need to have an idea or hypothesis, do the reading/research, and only then can you formulate the "real" idea about which your paper is based. You then must structure a paper that expresses that idea, and then you have to dig in and write the thing.


The thing that happens to me with essays - repeatedly - is that I spend much more time on the research/thinking portion than I should, relative to the writing portion. The interesting part of essay writing to me isn't expressing my thoughts (which is irrational, since much of one's grade is based on the quality of expression), but formulating and balancing them. However, what that can mean is that I end up 24 hours before an essay is due with a piece of writing that doesn't match my own standards - not because the grammar is wrong, but instead because I don't like the final ideal product.

So I refine the ideas, forgetting or ignoring the inevitable re-writing that is required, and I get into a timecrunch. That happened twice this semester in a single class, and each time I had to take my own medicine and turn in the papers late, despite a grade hit, because I wanted to get the ideas right. Neither turned out super, in the end (at some point, you start to loathe your graphs and data), but I was much happier with the intellectual content I had produced and the mental twisting they had required.

And this time (unlike in past classes), I got a grade that reflected the work I did, despite the grade hit. Sometimes sucking it up and turning a paper in late is a good idea. Whew.

Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party

Obama wrote this blog post in 2005. I will provide excerpts and commentary.
There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate.  And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position.    I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.  
Obama is saying here that. Elections matter, and they matter more than specific policy wins. This post was in the context of John Roberts's confirmation hearings. Obama was writing to convince bloggers not to go after Democrats supporting Roberts, because he felt demanding purity was unwise.
According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party.  They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda.  In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.  The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.
I think this perspective misreads the American people.  From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon
Obama knows that this path is available - and he is specifically rejecting it. The Healthcare and Tax Cut deals are a part of his political DNA, one reason I supported him, and what he's saying with the bolded sentence is that the Public isn't going to catch on to the great policy goals. Because we won't get it, he shouldn't try it. Cynical.
It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings.   A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession.  Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee).  While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
This is Obama being aware that he's outside the mainstream in some ways, and aware that leading from the left is hard.
Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line?  How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?   
I am not drawing a facile equivalence here between progressive advocacy groups and right-wing advocacy groups.  The consequences of their ideas are vastly different. Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton.  But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward.  When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems.  We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority.  We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate.  Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard.  They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice.  The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress may have made the problems worse, but they won't go away after President Bush is gone.  Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice.  We won't have the popular support to craft a foreign policy that meets the challenges of globalization or terrorism while avoiding isolationism and protecting civil liberties.  We certainly won't have a mandate to overhaul a health care policy that overcomes all the entrenched interests that are the legacy of a jerry-rigged health care system.  And we won't have the broad political support, or the effective strategies, required to lift large numbers of our fellow citizens out of numbing poverty.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job.  After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart.  It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for.  It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion.  But that's our job.  And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.  Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.  A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist."  In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark.  Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough.  But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well.  And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.  This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required.  It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up.  Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully.  I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response. 
This is our President. Time has made him more realist, as I noted in the previous post, but this is what he wants to believe, and why I'm glad he has the job. He gets it.

Honesty and Education in Campaigns

There was an unfortunate pattern during the 2008 campaign of Obama "dumbing down"- specific rhetoric on policy was ignored by the media, and his honest statements about occasional home discord or leaving socks around weren't effective at showing him to be a real person, so he stopped making them. For as much as we prefer people who are kind and honest, the results show that being ruthless is the true path to power - just look at the characters in "All the Devils Are Here," which I read yesterday. That's why the charge of Obama mania was so accurate - in simplifying a message for the masses, Obama (and Palin) both took an individually correct path that, in sum, hurt the entire election process.

I believe that candidates and their campaigns should treat each race as a learning/education opportunity for the public, so that people are empowered to understand issues as they learn who will represent them best.

The Bell of Hope



I visited Ground Zero for the first time today. Despite several trips to and through New York since a longer 5th grade sightseeing venture, I never got further south than the Lower East Side or the Port Authority.

That changed today, when I had several free hours between my arrival from Williams and the flight to Atlanta (where I am writing this post while appreciating the irony that my flight has free wifi while the airport it departed from has no internet available at all.) But I digress: using my MetroCard, I took an A and then E train to the Wordl Trade Center Station, without map or expectation, and to my surprise, emerged across the street from Ground Zero (so named on the night of the events, the same day I turned 13. But that is a different story).

I was a little shocked to come out of the station next to this aerial gap; while a tower is being constructed, one still gets the feeling that something larger used to fill this space; the scar is still present, if obscured by the fence and website advertising the memorial effort. But then I turned around, and to my surprise, saw a littel graveyard with people wandering around, and behind that, a little church.

It was, I now know, St. Paul's Chapel, and I faintly recalled the news stories about how volunteers and rescue workers found aid, shelter, and comfort within its untouched walls as they labored to shift through to toxic rubble (ahem, Zadroga Bill). So strange to see such old graves, such as a French her from the Revolutionary War, standing next to the place where the battles we fight today in Afghanistan began. I marveled and observed the old graves with curiosity, but short of a brief moment when I came out of the station, the area had no strong emotional effect on me.

And then I saw the Bell, right outside the Chapel's doors, and as I read the words inscribed (reprinted above), my eyes welled up and I felt something within me respond to the hope of the bell, and the tradition of ringing after each terrorist attack, be it in London, Madrid, or elsewhere, as a reminder of reconciliation even when bloodlusts are strongest.

But what reached me ever more was a sudden realization that in reading the words on the bell, I wasn't thinking about "cities," but instead people. Cities are people - collections of people, just as colleges, towns, countries, fan clubs of sports teams, and every other organization is a ccollection of people that say "I am."

I am a Decaturite, and a Georgian. I am an Eph and a Bulldog. I am also an American, and while that allegiance resonated as I watched the bell, what struck me more was the kitchy phrase "citizen of the world." For I recognized in that bell the connections I have with the City of New York and the people that compose it - those who lost parents or friends in the attack, and those who lived through the dire days of dust and death. I saw in that bell a window to the ties that bind all of us, even in the deepest tragedy when some reject those ties and give their lives to violence, and for the first time in months, I cried a bit. But not for fear, and not in mourning. Instead:



I wrote this roughly a year and a half ago, on StoryTime:
But mostly, I hear about times when some of the people I looked up to most had the deepest troubles - the facade is pulled away, and we see each other as we see ourselves - as flawed creatures simply trying to do the best with what we have in life. Storytime is a place of common comfort - where a crowd can support the speaker, and the speaker support the crowd. My life at Williams is better for those gatherings at 9 in Henze lounge, and I look forward to the last of the semester and the other stories in years to come.
Last Sunday, it was my turn. I had known since my first Storytime that I wanted to speak, but such things weren't for me to decide (though I'll admit I said I had that interest a few times). To me, each week is its own gift: hearing some unique part of someone's past. For me, the story was also private, but had something to do with the irony of my leadership at Williams, and my natural introversion.

Those patterns continue today. I still say well-intentioned things sometimes ("nah, I'm dropping Maddy off first") which come off as "I won't drop you off," when I mean to say "I'm dropping you off next."

Complicated, yes, but also true. I wish I'd said more about Gargoyle as well - the little purple book I own has so much of the history of student leadership at Williams, something I constantly seek to foster; I also hoped to be clearer that whatever my reasons for starting to do "leadership" stuff, the ultimate reasons for my actions are that I genuinely enjoy helping people.

But it was my story, and while I have to get back to finals, I'm very gratified by the response I got.

Another Technology Post

While writing a paper about hypocrisy in politics, I came across a blog post review of Political hypocrisy: the mask of power, from Hobbes to Orwell and beyond By David Runciman. I then searched for the book (which is checked out) on my library's website, then accessed it via the electronic portal. I can now read the entire book online, at no cost to me, about 1 minute after finding out it exists.

Without getting up from my carrel. Whoa.


A reprint from 18 months ago, as I prepare to speak tomorrow....

The founders of Storytime [09s] are soon to graduate, and though heaps of accolades have already been given to them, especially in the form of the Grosvenor Memorial Cup. However, I think readers near and far should know about the scope of Storytime's achievement.

I and others here sometimes speak of the legendary "Williams Woman" or "Williams Man." This person is a true polymath - he or she excels physically through WOC or a varsity athletic team, artistically expresses him or herself through music, theater, or visual art, and carries a high GPA on the side, while maintaining close friendships and near universal respect. WEPO, JAing, or other campus honors are also the norm for this person. This ideal Eph is created, I think, through an amalgamation of various respected students on campus who have excelled in some of these areas, though not all. This legend is the yardstick that I sometimes compare myself too, enabled by a few real seniors who do seem to excel in all areas.

This myth of "effortless perfection" has been the subject of studies, Gargoyle conversations, and presentations across campus, some before my own time. I'm curious to see if it was around in the days of some of the alum on this blog.

Nevertheless, the myth is alive and well today, with one exception. Storytime is one moment when hierarchy disintegrates: there is only a speaker and an audience, with a facilitator who makes any needed announcements, such as the name of the cookies going around (Tonight: Chex Mix w/ chocolate, peanut butter, and something else)

Like any good tale, such stories usually involve some combination of hardship, trial, and conflict, often along with redemption in the form of loving friends or mentors. But they are always profound - Storytime has become a place to share the history that has shaped a person's character. I often hear of invitations to Storytime by speakers to their friends, who have often heard nothing or a small piece of the deep and powerful narrative of the speaker's experience until that night, along with a group of utter strangers entrusted with the same secrets. It is a place of vulnerability, bound by an unwritten covenant of shared support. I am almost always left discovering something about myself in hearing about others; sometimes realizing a blessing that had gone unnoticed earlier in life, or a hidden value in common experience that I had not yet seen.

But mostly, I hear about times when some of the people I looked up to most had the deepest troubles - the facade is pulled away, and we see each other as we see ourselves - as flawed creatures simply trying to do the best with what we have in life. Storytime is a place of common comfort - where a crowd can support the speaker, and the speaker support the crowd. My life at Williams is better for those gatherings at 9 in Henze lounge, and I look forward to the last of the semester and the other stories in years to come.

On the leaked cables

In response to a request for comment on Facebook:

The leak is bad, for the same reason the Presidential Records Act is bad, as currently written and construed, because it doesn't change the thoughts, opinions, or actions of those who write cables, but DOES change what gets written down.

The Obama Team thrives before entering the White House on Instant Messaging - now, since all communications must be archived, they must rely on face-to-face conversations, which causes inefficiency, among other problems. In the same way, the leak of these cables will cause inefficiency in three ways.

First, diplomatic cables will irrevocably be written with a fear of possible public consumption, meaning that true nuance will be sacrificed for political considerations, and that those writing them will have to use language that is less explosive when explosive language is required. Second, the leaks will cause more reports to go back to the State Department in verbal phone calls, or at levels of classification (Top Secret) that aren't fitting of the situation. This, and most worrying, is that this will make it harder for someone in Uzbekistan to look up State Dept info on another country that's relevant to his work in Uzbekistan - we need information to be able to flow freely in the classified system, and because of this leak, it won't flow nearly as freely.

As for the content, I find them interesting, but there are no revelations that justify the problems caused by the release - most all of this stuff was easily guessed without official confirmation, and the private stances of foreign officials are PRIVATE for a reason - making them public won't change their public stances at all.

Deathly Hallows

Just saw HP7. The short version:
  • Still annoyed by depictions of magic/flying.
  • Much more satisfied by acting job of the trio.
  • Still hating the writing. 
  • In love with the music, especially the credits song (what is it?)
But the movie's tone got to me. I remember, sharply, a moment when I was 17 and realized that I was the same age as Harry during the last days of Book 7 (which hadn't come out yet). I realized I was the same age as the protagonist, and sharply didn't feel ready to confront the ultimate force of evil in the world. At the same time, I wish there was some ultimate evil, because that would allow me a clear enemy to pursue and defeat. I remember agonizing during Order of the Phoenix, as I knew exactly how I would have fooled Dolores Umbridge, and I'd like to think I'd have been a decent anti-Voldemort strategist.

But I could have been no Snape, and ultimately, Snape was the hero of this story: Harry's path was clear and shining; he ultimately realized he had no choice but to die and chose it; Snape had every choice but near certain death and yet stayed the course. That makes him the true hero of the series, and I will never be Snape, or LBJ, who came out of the South to pursue Civil Rights, or FDR, who manipulated unemployment to bottom out right before his inauguration.

At this point I'm rambling, something frequent on this blog, but my ultimate point is that Harry is a reminder of a simpler world: one where enemies are clear. Our world is less so: if our goal is happiness, the methods of achieving it are vague. We can only hope to follow the ideas that we set in our souls, and trust in providence for the rest.

Why I'm in RASAN

Non-Williams readers: RASAN = Rape and Sexual Assault Network, a campus hotline and group that supports studentsand promotes consent in hooking up.

For a while, I was the only male who showed up to RASAN meetings, making me the "man of the year" on our hotline calling schedule. I sometimes rationalized reasons for my presence - that being there would raise my credibility when helping friends after uncomfortable hookups, that I was honoring a friend who was going through a rough time, or the rather favorable gender balance in the room vis a vis dating.

Let's unpack that last one for a moment. I rationalized my participation in a group that primarily deals with helping women after bad experiences (some of which constitute rape/sexual assault, and some of which don't) by claiming a desire to use my status in RASAN to hookup with my fellow hotline members. The problem is that none of the above are true: I've never crushed on any of the wonderful ladies in RASAN, though many of them have my highest respect (ES, ES, MK, BB, CS, BN, etc.; y'all know who you are), but I still felt like I had to pretend I was interested in someone in order to "defend" my RASAN membership.

I also am not in RASAN in order to gain credibility with friends, or to honor someone else not on campus. I'm in RASAN because of a moment that happened when I was around 16. I was talking with a group of guys I knew outside of school, and one was talking about his life at a nearby Catholic School. He talked about walking around in the halls during crowded class changes, and how he would take his hand and reach down and under a girl to grab her as she walked by, honest-to-God sexual assault that he could get away with because of the crowded, moving hall. The other guys in the group laughed and approved, though I could tell some of them weren't completely comfortable, but no one challenged him that it wasn't cool to "grab p****" in his high school's hallway. I didn't challenge him; I just kept quiet about his comment since I didn't want to cause drama.

That single comment and its reaction are why I joined RASAN. The stories I heard at Take Back the Night are why I will always support such groups. the admiration I have for women I KNOW to have shared their stories with a group of partial strangers is boundless, and I am now convinced that I know many, many more people who have been assaulted. Joining RASAN is how I can be their ally, even as I walk around ignorant of their stories.

It also means that I care about posts like this one, and will do my best to change male norms, even as I'd bet that people who know I'm in RASAN might alter their language around me. You should consider joining as well.

Choosing Courses for the Last Time

It's hard.

I want to take about 10 different ones, but 2 of my 4 are already filled slots. I think the last ones will go to MATH and CSCI, but if I go with a SOC or ARAB course instead of the CSCI then my schedule is more symmetrical.

Why do such trivialities matter? I've learned that the MoE of expected course benefits is huge, and its better to structure a strong schedule than to sacrifice that in favor of marginally better sounding classes that might easily not be so.

Oh, and there's a tutorial as well.


A comment elsewhere

One of the first things I learned when working in Washington my sophomore year is that I couldn't understand what it was like to be a minority until I was one. I lived in a majority-black neighborhood, and was the only white on my bus until we crossed the Potomac. (I also dealt with the poor infrastructure of DC every day, with roads so clogged I could often get out of one bus and walk down the street for 15 minutes to catch the one ahead.)

But in any case, there was something unique in walking every day to the bus knowing that I would be the only white person at the stop, and something unique feeling "different" each day in that bus. But that was an hour-long commute each day, and the moment I got to Eastern Market in DC, other white people appeared everywhere.

My point is that I noticed it - it was a part of my experience - and that I could not have understood that feeling from a description, because it was new. I am sure that if I felt something for an hour a day on a bus, that black Williams students feel something 24/7 on campus, where they are often the only black students in a room or around a table.

But I can't tell you what that is, because I'm not a 11% minority here. I can't understand or really describe to you what it feels like to be black, and why my classmates can get so fed up with Williams that they head back to the BSU to regroup. I don't understand, and I can't help you to understand.

So to your question:

I don't know. My guess is yes, but not having been in that situation, I can't tell you, because I know how hard it is to communicate that sort of feeling from my experiences elsewhere. There are black students at Williams who do fine, and black students that do not.

But let's take a look at the historic policies. We know that blacks in this country (and especially in my native south) suffered discrimination through Brown vs. Board and for some years thereafter. We also know that blacks were denied many of the benefits of the G.I. Bill, and I have heard other students state (but haven't looked at the sourcing myself) that national policies were destructive to the black family in the 50s and 60s. Those were our parents.

The result today is that where I went to school in Decatur, there were three black and four white elementary schools, which some black kids were bused to. The black schools had chronic issues and two were closed down during consolidation. The white schools became the administrative offices, the 4/5 academy, and two others remained open as elementary schools.

In my school system, blacks were generally not prepared at the same level as whites, with an "achievement gap" that started at birth. This meant that the Honors and AP classes at my high school were accordingly white dominated. The best and brightest blacks from my school, who took AP Calculus, went to Florida State.

Williams has a hard time finding qualified minorities because of the structural achievement gap. Part of that gap's effect is cultural - blacks who studied in my school were called "oreos" and often bullied. I never had to deal with that. Additionally, the public schools I went to were improved if you could eat breakfast at home and had a good dinner ready, something many blacks didn't have because of the different socio-economics. So there's a mixture of factors, some of them tied to money, and others tied to skin, that work against black students.

I would argue that the issues about money and class are more problematic, because blacks of means can find private environments for their children to learn, but both are aspects that would have made my life more difficult in Decatur had I been black. Not because Decatur was a bad school district - indeed, its one of the best - but because of a wide variety of factors that made stereotypes into reality within my high school's cafeteria.

So when you take the top 1% of white students and the top 1% of black students, they are probably going to look different. Add various factors that make being aware of one's blackness a liability in standardized testing and you make that 1% look worse than it relatively should.

One of the problems with our current policies (we being society) is that we pluck out that top 1% or 5% of minorty populations, and provide lots of resources - the national achievement scholarship for one - but there are two structural issues here. First, when you take that top percentage out, you are ignoring the greater mass, which is where the momentum needs to be shifted. Second, when you create special programs, you give an implicit message that "you aren't good enough for the *real* program so we have this special one." That doesn't mean such programs are bad, but rather that there is no perfect bullet to resolving the legacy of discrimination that my homestate and others unleashed on minorities.

So when a black student comes to Williams, I'm willing to state that they run a risk of being less prepared. Their school might not have had the same high standards; other factors can underlie this issue. But Williams throws them in, having recruited them, and expects them to sink or swim in a brand-new environment where they are, often for the first time, a minority. Unsurprisingly, it can be difficult, and they might have a lower GPA their freshman year.

I know this narrative because it also applies to me. Deprived of my friend group, I languished a bit in my freshman fall, and my freshman GPA was significantly lower than my other years at Williams. That one year can doom you from achieving PBK when going against others who walk into Williams intending Med School or Grad school.

So yes, I think there are issues at Williams that relate to people's backgrounds, and please note that the issues raised in Stand With Us aren't even a piece of this post. I'm only telling part of the story, whatever it is. There are issues relating to class (poor white kids are very underrepresented here relative to the country), and issues relating to race. Both are not positive, and Williams isn't on top of these issues yet.

Stewart's Closing Words

Because I don't think he'll mind my appropiating them to this blog:
And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity. If that's okay - I know that there are boundaries for a comedian / pundit / talker guy, and I'm sure that I'll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.

So, uh, what exactly was this? I can't control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions.

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear--they are, and we do.

But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.

The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume! Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult--not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema. And yet... I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror--and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month-old pumpkin, and one eyeball.

So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle, to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable--why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?

We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!

But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

(Points to video screen, showing video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.

But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear--often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers'. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river.

And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. 'Oh my God--is that an NRA sticker on your car?' 'Is that an Obama sticker on your car?' It's okay--you go, then I go.

And sure, at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder, and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst!

Because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land.

Sometimes, it's just New Jersey.

But we do it anyway, together. If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted. Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. And to see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.”

Why the Rally Matters

Talking to a friend this evening, I mentioned my glee that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) drew over 250,000 people. Her question: why are you so pleased? For a moment, I was stumped. Why this number, so large it's not possible to really comprehend how many people were there.

But here's why. For many Americans, Election Day is the extent of their involvement with politics. Yes, they get robocalls, and yes, they see political ads, but these are actions of consumers, not participants. To be involved, they vote, and this is enough for many. The problem is that voting (and the sampling that tries to predict it) doesn't do enough.

Polling and voting tell us preferences for or against a given person on a given day under certain conditions, one reason why there can be large swings between polls and results. People's thoughts at home can differ from their thoughts in a voting booth, and their thoughts in a voting booth can differ from their intentions and actions outside of the booth.

In short, voting is an imperfect way of expressing our thoughts, especially given how buggy our voting system is, and accordingly, I think many elites don't care too much about votes as a signal of intentions and the character of the country.

Instead, I think the record demonstrates amply that politicians respond to a lot of things: a plumber with a simple question, a gaffe from an opponent, but relevant to this conversation: the thoughts and feelings of those around them. And those who are around politicians tend not to be representative of everyone. For one thing, given the low pay / high work ratios of working in the public sector, those around politicians tend to gather some sort of "pay" from being close to power, or from feeling like they are making a difference and helping people. But most importantly, these people are also elites, interested enough in the public sector to interact with it much more than the average person. Those are the workers.

The citizens who voice their opinions also aren't representative. Yes, they are of every sex, orientation, color, and hue, but they all care too much. They (or I should say we) are often polarized, and are motivated to contact offices in DC with specific wishes for or against bills. There's nothing wrong with these interests, but I've found in my experience that such interests come from two places. Either they are from people with a personal focus (like the parents of children with cancer who lobby congress for more research funding), and whose political interests are focused in that area, or they care about dan near everything. Those with personal focuses are more like the rest of us - they are involved because of what happened to them or their loved ones, but they only sound off on one thing. The people who care about everything sound off on 10 things. Or 20 things. And so the partisans (good people that they/we are) get an overinflated power over every politician and of that politician's positions.

And logically, too, I should say, since these are the same people that contribute to campaigns. But these people are not everyone - I am not of the same level of political interest as my collegemates - and as a result, our leaders stop representing everyone and they start representing US - the interested class.

This event is important because it brings more people into the sphere of influence on politicians. Their words and actions will differ now, because 215k+ people showed up to the Rally, and if they don't, people will be more likely to hold them to account. So in the long term, I might push for process reform, but in the meantime, I will celebrate rallies that are about countering the insane games that politicians and those that surround them play in the search for power.

Senior Year

I'm not going to DC for the rally. The reason is that I have the privilege of helping to organize the Joe Scarborough event happening this Tuesday, and that I need to get caught up with work.

But before I do that, a few lessons learned this year with whatever writing power I have left.

1. You get the things you want when you stop wanting them

You can think about, and daydream about, what you want to be doing for hours. But when the time comes for you to get your dream, it's not a dream. It's work, it's boring, and to some degree, you enjoy the memory more than the moment. These things cannot be our goals - if you set your goal too low, you might not hit it. But if your goal is too high, then even missing it will accomplish something.

2. History matters.

I didn't know hardly anything about the Progressives of the Turn of the Century until about two weeks ago. Turns out they were interesting and fascinating, and that I would have been there right with them..... as they failed. Leadership is about inspiring people to go above and beyond, yes, but its also about knowing something humanity's failings. You cannot lead from a pedestal.

3. Images are easy to create.

I find it remarkable how many people think I'm amazingly busy, which is true, but for all of the wrong reasons. Yes, I do RASAN, the Feast, and man other clubs, but the things that take my time almost always happen behind the scenes. Bringing a speaker to campus and sending all-campus e-mails are very visible, but they aren't the stuff of involvement or leadership.

4. The world of the Elite is strange.

I don't think I want to be a part of it. There's too much nonsense involved. If, though, I can sit next to it, reaching it occasionally to make things happen....well, that would be perfect.

5. When you go onto a conference call where you might be asked a question.....have an answer ready.


About what, I can't say yet. But I am.

Now to write a response paper.

Too Much to Do

I did not anticipate how many wonderful things I would enjoy in the past week, or how little time they would leave me for other wonderful things. 3 hours of sleep, here I come, then it's back to it.

What I did since Friday (to elaborate on later): CUL, Degrees, Class, List, Website, E-mails, Board meeting, '57 dinner, Gaudino, Gaudino, brunch, reading, feast, tfa discussion with cousins, rasan, storytime, discussion, reading, car finding, essay, registrar visiting, essaying, reading, meeting, class, soccer game, dinner with mother (not mine), class, reading, reading, and much more writing to go.

I love it all. Unfortunately.

Wherever you were for the past 69 days...

at least you weren't stuck underground in a 90 degree (Fahrenheit) mine.

iTunes libraries

It seems people with iTunes open on their computer automatically share content on the Williams network. So far, so good. But there are a few other much more creepy details:
  • The library is named according to the computer's owner: "____ _____'s library" and so on.
  • iTunes shares everything the owner has, meaning that any self-recordings in one's library are available to anyone else (for example, podcasts on dieting or other medical issues)
  • iTunes shares one's playlists, which often have names that share personal info, such as "my songs," or pieces for class.
  • Most egregiously, most of the shared libraries I peeked at share the "top 25 most played songs" and "recently played," both of which are a little personal for sharing across the internet, even on Williams.

Mountain Day

Older traditions are odd blips in a life of constant re-creation.

I woke up at 6:30 and banged pots in my house to officially announce Mountain Day to my housemates, then went off to ring the bells (for 15 minutes, sorry, sleepers) and to sit at tunnel city for a while.

The day was GORGEOUS. And by that I mean perfect in wind, weather, and temperature.

After Facebook chats with a few alums, I traveled to Chapin Steps and collected some 50+ people to hike up Mt. Greylock and then over to Stony Ledge. The hike was great, if occasionally taxing to my cardio-vascular system and/or my calves.

Then we hit the ledge, and I saw people I know and like for a while (spilling apple juice on myself), listened to songs, sang songs, and then sent hike leaders down the trail until heading down myself, helping others with difficult sections of trail (unless guys were in all-male groups that shunned help)

I got down, yelled a little bit to get people on buses, had a great dinner cooked by a friend, visited more friends in Woodbridge and the CTD, and am now home.

Good day. But what was the role of tradition?

Happy Mountain Day!!!!!!

I am, right now, ringing the bells in the chapel to notify the rest of campus. EXCITING!!!!!!

Such a good day

Williams can be wonderful.

Today, I woke up and had an hour-long meeting with a faculty member in which I was seriously asked about my thoughts on college policy. I then went to a tutorial meeting where I realized (again) how I managed to shoot myself in the foot in my paper, learned more about the authors, and then argued about the nature of Obama's presidency. Then I had a 3 hour class about Nazi propaganda where I read unpublished memos on Hitler, followed by a small session with the speaker I helped bring to campus today.

After dinner with that same speaker, we went to a packed Griffin 3 (easily over 100 people there) for the lecture, after which several people came up to me to complement the event. And event that happened because I thought of someone to bring, got ok's from two people, and then planned it out.

Williams lets you do these things (and then realize that pre-planning is VERY important when you forget a detail).

And then I hung out with a friend for an hour or so for some good one-on-one time.

This is the senior year I wanted, and the few bittersweet pieces are a negligible price to pay.

Skip to 3:35.....I'm absolutely honored.

one month....

...since I set foot on campus. Let's hope it stays just as remarkable, but for now, my writing time is reserved for fellowships, the Record, and academic work. Alas.


At Commencement last year, I had to deliver a message to the stage about an event I didn't fully understand, that had occurred earlier that day in the Swiss Alps. Someone died, but unlike the myriads of people I know who have passed, this person was connected to those I was connected to: a member of their entry and their year-abroad group.

Another '11 blogger said it all better than I ever could, but listening to stories about him tonight is a privilege, and only underscores how I feel about each and ever member of our class. If I could have lunch with a difference person, each day for the rest of the year, I wouldn't come close to meeting everyone. But I want to, and events like those tonight (and the circumstances that brought it about) remind me of the countless gifts we may never access.


Today is the 11th of September

...and it is my birthday.

Nine years ago, I was a 7th grader taking English with Mrs. Ratliff when the assistant principal stopped by to tell her that some sort of plane had crashed in New York City. The rest of the day was fairly dull for me - I think the teachers made a conscious effort to push us through the day, and in any event, my next memory is from the last bell of school, when all of the classroom's TVs were switched to CNN or its equivalent. That was when I first saw the towers fall.

And I still didn't get it. Yes, it was bad, and no, I didn't fail to understand that there would be suffering and anger, but I grew up in the 1990s, when the world was relatively peaceful and there was little fear. 9/11 did not bring about any fear for me. That's a privilege of age, I suppose, but with it came an ignorance of what these attacks would mean, until my friend Chris looked me in the eye and spoke the only words I still clearly recall from that day.

"Will, this is more important that you think it is. This day is going to define our lives." And he, I think, was right.

I went home and watched the news, then called my friend Ben, who was born a few hours ahead of me. Our short conversation acknowledge that no one would associate our birthday with the 911 emergency line, and then we went back to our families to celebrate being 13.

I met the first person to lose a friend or family member (that I knew about) last year at Williams, but for me the day has never been about our vulnerabilities, but instead about the power of events - that I and my country, and indeed my world could still be moved by events about others far away. There's hope there, even when the clouds are billowing towards us, but I doubt my birthday will ever cease being something of a reflective event.

from Tumblr - words that should exist in english

L’esprit de escalier: (French) The feeling you get after leaving a conversation, when you think of all the things you should have said. Translated it means “the spirit of the staircase.”
Waldeinsamkeit: (German) The feeling of being alone in the woods.
Meraki: (Greek) Doing something with soul, creativity, or love.
Forelsket: (Norwegian) The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love.
Gheegle: (Filipino) The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
Pochemuchka: (Russian) A person who asks a lot of questions.
Pena ajena: (Mexican Spanish) The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.
Cualacino: (Italian) The mark left on a table by a cold glass.
Ilunga: (Tshiluba, Congo) A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.

Just wrote this to a pre-frosh

Some portions edited out - thoughts?

I'm a Political Economy major, which is a hybrid between Poli Sci and Econ. It's sort of equivalent to a Public Policy Major. You can explore the POEC class descriptions (and everything else) at: http://catalog.williams.edu/ and http://www.williams.edu/politicaleconomy/

A bit about Williams:

Williams is great in that it's taught me a huge deal in critical thinking, such that I can solidly say that my school is going to share many aspects of other top-notch schools. The students here are great, super busy, and the campuses still have issues, but at this tier of higher ed, every department and program is notable and strong. You can major in anything here and be FINE.

Here are the things that make Williams different, which should clue you in as to if you want to be here:

Small. 550 per class is smaller than you think. You can't hide in class, and you can't hide from your ex's, but on the bright side, you will see your professors at the grocery store and some of your friends as you walk around. I love the little impromptu conversations that only happen because we're small. BUT, that might mean we can't offer all of the courses and subjects as regularly as other schools. We do our best to do that, but we can't hit maximum breadth and depth in the course offerings at the same time because of size. You'll see this in the "not offered" courses in the catalog.

Accessible. Lots of dorms have elevators, but I don't mean in the physical sense. The Dean is a personal friend of mine. The President knows my name, as does his predecessor. My professors are fine with me stopping by and many keep their doors open all of the time. I can see profs whose classes I'm not taking (because they aren't great at lecture), but who I love talking to in office hours. If I (admittedly, a now-senior involved in college governance) need the Dean to call ME, RIGHT NOW, I can get that call, and got it today.

Middle of Nowhere. We have lots of trails, but one street where the one indian restaurant, the one thai restaurant, the one coffee shop, and the one deli are located. (and the one others). We live in a "Purple Bubble" where almost everyone is fit, almost everyone is smart, and where the problems of the outside world don't really reach us. We are isolated. But we also have Mountain Day, a Friday in October when classes are canceled (without warning) and huge numbers of students stream up mountain trails to sing songs and have donuts/cider on Stony Ledge. It's AWESOME, and there's a shorter hike also with donuts at the top of Stone Hill if you want to spend your afternoon doing something else.

Day 1

This is my life at Williams. Not recommended, but I'm glad to claim it.

8:30 am: Wake up
9:00 am: Breakfast @ Currier, initial thoughts on possible event to plan
10:00 am: Get books at Water Street, take home
11:00 am: Go to see Rick Spalding, discuss work, clubs, and my summer. Also talk to Nancy, find out she used to be at the Dean's Office
12:00 pm: OCC Workshop
1:00 pm: catch-up/planning lunch
2:00 pm: speak with boss, get planning details, discuss meal plans
3:00 pm: meet with adviser, find out I can graduate, meet new prof
4:00 pm: get bike tire filled
4:30 pm: discuss room reconfiguration with someone of taste
5:15 pm: read and write e-mails
6:15 pm: cook/eat dinner
7:00 pm: class meeting #1
7:30 pm: class meeting #2
8:00 pm: briefing on new dining facilities and policies
8:30 pm: bike ride, talk with friend
9:00 pm: plan movie for class, start to look at someone's Rhodes app
10:00 pm: see friend in first time in year
10:30 pm: home, one more meeting

This year is going to be GREAT.

Meal Plan Calculus

Blatantly stealing ideas and wording from Dave Moore here.

Typically, a student is on campus for a maximum of 32 weeks in the year: 14 in each semester & 4 in Winter Study, though the 14 can drop to 12.5 or so if you leave for reading periods and don't have many exams. This ignores the 10 guest meals for the 21/week plan and the 6 guest meals for those on the 14.

If you eat EVERY meal, each week, you are paying X per meal:
  • 21-meal plan: $5364/(21*32) = $7.98 / meal
  • 14-meal plan: $5010/(14*32) = $11.18 / meal
  • 10-meal plan: $4094/(10*32) = $12.79 / meal
  • 5-meal plan: $2164/(5*32) = $13.53 / meal
  • 50-meal block: $658/(50) = $13.16 / meal
And that's why I'm going off the meal plan.....

Back at Williams..... 36 hours

What's happened in these two days, since our 2:45 arrival on Wednesday?

  • Started moving into room.
  • Retreived stuff from storage
  • Dinner with folks.
  • Voices/Katie Kent
  • A movie
  • Discovery that my floor isn't good at blocking soundwaves from below.
  • 3 hour, deep conversation
  • Sleep
  • Waking up to call from Dean's office
  • Logistics, visiting library and hopkins multiple times for Honor stuff
  • Regaled the frosh
  • Shop gov't talk
  • Stalked the 2014 class meeting with DD.
  • RASAN stuff for 6 hours.
  • Hung out with cool folks
  • Watched TV with more cools folks
Clearly there's no easing into senior year.

Bob Schieffer's America

I just finished Bob Schieffer's America, a great book of his CBS commentaries that's wrapping up the tail end of my summer of reading. Among many interesting anecdotes, such as early video bootlegging, where reporters got a movie into a cassette form while in the middle of nowhere then watched it on their editing equipment, or the time he formed an "exploratory committee" for the hell of it and was sent $200, including a dollar with strings literally attached, was something I had never thought of before.

Before the equality of the sexes was any sort of value in this country, when women lacked legal protections against harassment and unfair hiring practices, there were two viable career paths that allowed for independence: nursing and teaching. Thus all of the women most interested in working were competition for a limited set of jobs, which meant that nurses and teachers came from the elite of half the country's population. And, because of wage inequities, the hospitals and schools didn't cost too much either.

It doesn't justify what happened, but perhaps the hale we find ourselves in in regards to education and healthcare is based more on expectations than reality. (which is not to say that we can and should *really* improve on these fronts.)

Beep Beep, work being done

Fresh from asking someone else about their blog (which uses Wordpress to manage content, a system I like), I took a quick look at my own layout and I think it could use some work.

But Blogger gets major tips for allowing me to list pages on the top. In any case, this will be a work in progress for a few days, so please pardon the mess as I experiment.

Problem on Facebook - possible hack


Facebook News Feeds are getting taken over by a site that publishes, without warning, a story on your wall whenever you click the link in News Feed as "Will Slack likes (whatever you clicked)."

So, for example, I saw a friend from church camp on my news feed with a very non-church camp link "liked," which I clicked on, thinking that I had to be misunderstanding.

Nope, it then went up on my profile and he saw it on HIS newsfeed from me, as me liking it. Facebook needs to stop this ASAP.

Whereever you are for the next three months....

...just remember you aren't stuck in a Chilean mine with 32 dudes.

Travel (expanded from elsewhere)

My advice:

You should travel. You should get lost on rainy French roads, in waterlogged French fields, and amidst dark French forests, seeking a small towns while soaked through. You should see rooms made entirely of porcelain in Spain, coming from an apartment where the market is across the street, with fresh bread every morning. You should gasp at the sunlit splendor of Sainte-Chapelle, then enjoy a baguette and crepe in Place des Voghes. You should take the buses of Copenhagen, which children ride alone starting at age eight. You should see the ancient boulders at Stonehenge and the ancient chamber at Newgrange, and the cathedral that was never finished in Aalst. You should feel your heart pound as you see the fortresses that are police stations in Belfast, and feel your heart sour within the labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral. You should celebrate New Years with a little fire in Saint Peter's Square and get lost with a middle aged woman in the middle of a red-light district you didn't see on the maps.

Or maybe not. The above is what I've had the privilege to do, thanks to funding, fund-raising, family, and friends, but travel is about making your own experiences.

You should go somewhere else, and still find a home there because you have carried a home with you, because you are a self-contained person. There is nothing like sitting outside a window on a French hilltop, waiting for the bullet-train to speed by, alone with the world, and yet connected to a brand new part of it. Go forth!

From the links: Bush Campaign Chief and Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman comes out

My feeling is that the "responsible" side of the GOP is getting very close to a tipping point where they know they can't use anti-gay rage to get votes without being fundamentally dishonest and hurtful to people they know. The DC establishment knew (or suspected) his guy was gay for a while, but he's not going to be like Cheney and stay silent on the issue - he's coming out now in prep for helping national advocacy groups.

I know and love members of my family who do not feel that acting on the "wrong" sexual orientation is ok, and I don't think they are bad people for thinking so. Good people do bad things, and this is an easy bias, because all it requires is that we assume everyone to have our own orientation, which is different than assuming a false difference in status because of race or sex. I am attracted to women exclusively; pretending and acting otherwise would be a sin. I await the day that the Christian establishment (though there shouldn't be one, at least not for baptists) comes to its senses and realizes that the Bible isn't in conflict with natural homosexuality (which I believe), or just ignores those passages (which is more likely, as was the case with slavery).

Forcing people to live a fake life is wrong. The web is replete with stories of gays who have suffered from their own inborn prejudices as they discover their "unnatural" sexual orientation, and who have gone through hell trying to "right" themselves. Forcing people to actions that God doesn't want for them is horrible.

So, how was my Summer?

Life at during a year at college can be tracked by the seasons, but also by the topic-of-the-month.
  • Early fall: How was your summer/what did you do?
  • Mid fall: How're midterms treating you? / What are you doing for Winter Study?
  • Late fall: The weather: snow or the lack thereof.
  • Winter Study: Hey, let's go do .
  • Early Spring: How was your Winter Study?
  • Mid-Spring: Spring Break/Major/Thesis queries.
  • Late Spring: Summer plans and melancholy.
I love these conversations because they are instant small talk whenever you need it, but they can get a tad repetitive. Thus, for all of those people who know me well enough to read this, I grant you freedom from asking (though there are stories I won't be posting publicly you should ask me about :P )

Summer started off at Williams, where I moved to Dodd house (my own bathroom, but the shower only works if you're under 5'7"), and worked Commencement and Reunions. The key part: I got to eat during the intermediate time, so it was a chance to de-stress from exams, go talk to some profs I hadn't had time to see, and hang out with those seniors not at Hilton Head.

Then came commencement, where I was in the baccalaureate choir with some dear friends I hope to cross paths with sometime later in life, but also on staff as an "usher." I was asked to help out Dean Merrill, so I got to carry the giant prize-notebook around (and the temptation to read it) and generally worry about any other details at Ivy Exercises. Baccalaureate saw me walking around in a search for doorstops to keep Chapin's door open (it was rather warm), and then a surprised me trying to put on a choir robe in 15 seconds, which didn't quite work.

Commencement was inside (may that not happen to us, knock on wood), and I had the duty of standing near the stage to pass messages up and down. That job wasn't needed for the past few years, but with the tragedy in Europe, I had to pass things up to Dean Merrill several times, though I didn't know the context. Another student was injured, and I spent part of the rest of the day with her brother, whose composure was praiseworthy. The rest of my summer will follow in another post.


I just got a phone upgrade, and aside from the inevitable buyer's remorse that it's not military certified to survive a war zone (which I didn't need), my only other bug is the weak vibrate function. I used my old phone's vibrate exclusively, because it was much more versatile than a ring:
  • When I was lying down and wanted the phone to wake me up, I put it on a hard, rattling surface that would make a lot of noise if anyone called.
  • When I was in class, the sound was automatically muffled by my pocket and leg.
  • When I needed to find it, the buzz was loud enough to be heard a few feet away as I searched.
But now, my feature-laden phone's weak/soft vibrate means I have to choose a real ringtone. Grumph.

And random: Adobe doesn't allow you to combine PDFs unless you buy Acrobat. So now, a bunch of web services do it for free when Adobe could offer the service and get the ad money. There's an economic lesson in there somewhere.

Depressed about the world

My relationship with mankind (I'm sorry, humankind just sounds awkward) seems to be a bit of a roller coaster. On the one hand, I can have a marvelous vacation without spending a huge amount of money, and taking advantage of the marvelous infrastructure built up in this country, but on the other, I wonder how much the current situation differs from the current direction. (and for that matter, about the acceleration and jerk as well)

Friedman was right in 2008 and he's right now: this country has lost its way. We cry for lower taxes (R)/more spending (D) while we continue to borrow. We continue to buy junk food, and obesity isn't getting better. We treat our enemies as if they were Nazi Germany (with huge resources), and simply create more enemies with our policies.

For example: the Imam in charge of the 9/11 community center said that US policies were an "accessory" to 9/11. Accessory has a few meanings, but people balked at any idea that we could have possibly deserved such horror while missing the point that reasons and causes are different than justifications.

Let's say that you are at a bar and you get into a fight , then the person you were fighting follows you home and shoots your spouse. Is that person a murderer? YES. Is it their fault? YES. Did the fight you were in have something to do with it? ALSO YES.

In fact, I'd call the fight an "accessory" to the murder, because without it, the murder would not have occurred. That doesn't justify the murder, but it can help us to understand that getting into future fights might be a bad idea. It's a very imperfect comparison, but understanding the root causes of something should never be seen as justification.

So I'm a little depressed. Whoever out there thinks Obama is Muslim needs to do some research - it's a pity that with so much information available, so many of all political opinions still choose not to think.


A brief Facebook chat with an acquaintance about "trolls" got me thinking: what is the value in online discussion and debate with people I don't know too well?

The dishonest answer is that I'm honing my thinking and logic skills for future debates and discussions, but I think what's really going on is two-layered. First, I think there's a subconscious need to have or seek a "right" answer: now that I've formed a fairly cogent (though oft changing) worldview, but that I can only improve it by taking my arguments to the shed and see who can beat up on them.  This is fed with things I post on other sites. Second, though, I think I enjoy putting my ideas out there - that they have worth and value to a discussion, no matter what sort of stuff I respond to, and that something positive can come out of their presentation to a reader.

But is feeling good justification for doing this? Is this really the best sort of entertainment?


Thoughts from my reading

1. Those who would use propaganda should be wary of what happens when the ideas they sponsor become more authoritative than they are.

2. Absolute levels of well-being (which philosophers focus on) are different than relative levels of well-being (which our emotions focus on) are different than trends in well-being (which planners focus on) are different than accelerations of well-being (which academics focus on) are different than the jerks of well-being, who everyone ignores. Politicians choose whichever supports their position.

3. The comfort of feeling that one's cause is absolutely right feels worse than the fear that one's cause might be wrong, but the former gets many more people killed.

Stand With Us: my memory and regret

I was a leader in the Williams "Stand With Us" movement, which seemed to be a coalescing of opinions and feelings that had been long-felt but not acted upon. The group formed at Williams in the February of my freshman year, and successfully put on a rally/march + a day called "Claiming Williams" the next year. I was a leader of the third subgroup of SwU, which unsuccessfully sought to create student-generated community standards instead of relying on the Dean's Office for those rules. However, fears about thought crime and harsh punishments for un-PC speech stifled my groups efforts, which taught me a huge deal about leadership and communication.

The events were catalyzed by what was written on the door of a frosh in Willy E, next door, but were much more tied to long-standing patterns and emotions that provided the impetus for the organization. One of Stand With Us's biggest issues, as I saw it, was that the larger campus never heard much (or realized much) about the long-standing emotions, and only saw a bunch of students and faculty getting riled up about a word written by some drunk dude on a door.

So from the start, Stand With Us was understood very differently by those inside and outside of it. The meeting that established the shared feelings of those within the movement was on a Wednesday night. I had conflicts, but ultimately chose not to go because I didn't think much would come of the meeting. Instead, I heard the next day that students had talked and shared for over three hours about their pain and feelings about how this college treated some of them as second-class, in a way. These feelings were sometimes caused subtlety - a look of suspension, a dismissive comment, or a bothersome policy for financial aid kids, but also had occasional and rare explicit causes: words shouted in a dining hall, graffiti on a door, and other thing documented by the MCC.

That first meeting was more than enough to establish intra-group legitimacy: there was never a question after that that Stand With Us wasn't responding to a real, tangible problem affecting many students. The problem was that that legitimacy didn't extend to outside of the group, and to an extent, didn't a extend to me. I saw first hand the passion of so many student leaders, and I knew that whatever was causing them to act, their feelings weren't shallow or opportunistic - this was a real passion.

The problem was that after that first meeting, there really wasn't much said about what had caused those feelings. I spent hours on WSO arguing for Stand With Us on faith - faith that these feelings had real causes based in our dynamics on campus, even though I didn't see the causes for such frustration for myself. I heard a few things, sure, about a time when some Ephs crossed the street to avoid walking by another student wearing "gangster" clothing, but nothing that really justified what was going on around me. Yet, I knew it was justified, and treated it as such. And through all of the Stand With Us saga, continued to assume the justification. I don't think I ever really understood all of the causes for the feelings and emotions. Perhaps that was impossible.

But Stand With Us acted as if it was easy - as if anyone with a modestly functioning brain could see a culture of "hatred and indifference," and that those who didn't were negligently ignorant as "indifferent." That turned a lot of people off, and was part of a "with us or against us" dynamic that caused me to choose not to follow the march. After it, students spoke to me about how uncomfortable they had felt as marchers came into their common rooms and study spaces, inviting them to make a statement they couldn't identify with, but with an implicit judgment on those who were "indifferent." People don't like being identified as bad, and reacted defensively, turning what should have been a universal stance against bigotry into a divisive campus issue with two sides arguing over WSO and dinner tables alike.

Even worse, some reacted by saying that the feelings and emotions of SwU members were flawed or false, an attack on validity that caused more heightened emotions as people felt attacked for an emotion they didn't want to have in the first place. SwU members were described as "looking for a battlefield" and choosing Williams to fight national issues that supposedly weren't present here. In focusing on the overreaction's illegitimacy, many forgot that there had to be some reason, somewhere, for so many to care so much. But there wasn't a lot of talking about this - just an assumption on one side that the justifications were obvious and on the other that they were invented.

And so the fracture continued, and never healed. Those of both perspectives continue to this day, I think, with the same feelings on the group and what it did, and I find that to be unfortunate. Stand With Us was a huge learning opportunity - I found out how much names matter in defining what a policy proposal is - but we squandered this chance to understand each other, and instead assumed that those with opposite opinions were deficient. I don't know how I could have fixed this, or even if it should or could have been fixed by me, but I do regret it deeply.

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Readers will want to remember the feed of links on the right hand side of this page, which is updated much more often than the actual blog with articles and other sites of interest to me (though not always endorsed).

From a comment by me, elsewhere

We as a species have always suffered from various depravities, be they slavery (which continues to this day in a black market), murder, rape, and war. These things existed a thousand years ago, and I highly doubt that they will be eradicated 1000 years in the future. What has changed is the technology that allows us to kill (and save lives) much more efficiently, and the media that allows for the rapid dissemination of information. I don't know the ultimate end of these changes, but my guess is that as broadcasting information gets cheaper, the forces above he despises will lose power, or have already lost some power. I think we're in a better place than we were 90 years ago, when women in this country were first allowed the ballot.

That doesn't mean that the future cannot be seen as black now, but instead that the future was black in the American Revolutionary War, when Washington's army froze at Valley Forge, and that the future was black at Gettysburg as the South fought to retain a right for slavery and the Union fought to retain the South in a war that was enabled by decades of failed leadership, and that the future was black when Bull Connor unleashed dogs and hoses at the marchers in the civil rights movements, and that the future was black all of those years Nelson Mandela sat in prison.

But the King's army was defeated, and the Union maintained, and slavery ended, and civil rights won, and apartheid ended, not because we saw the world as inherently flawed and worthy of condemnation, but because we know that " the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." - MLK

I think hope is a much better motivator than despair.

What a Williams degree prepares you to do....

And yes, I am still drafting the rankings post and will get it up when I can.

Rankings, philisophical

I'm out of writing power, so here's a preview list of the topics I'll hit tomorrow:
  • Williams's way of dealing with the rankings
  • How Williams policies improved our standings
  • How other schools have done much worse stuff
  • The impact of low "reputation" response rates.
  • Poor incentives and their consequences.
  • How rankings get used.
This will probably be followed by a post about why Williams is the best college in the country for all of its unquantifiable factors.

Rankings in detail: arbitary comparisons

After a long day returning to the office from a fabulous Eph vacation, little could have warmed my heart more than the kind complement from ShuffStuff @ Tumblr, and hope that these musing manage to satisfy. I also wrote a shortened version of the below a few days ago when the Forbes rankings came out.

Let's start by taking a look at what US News says about their rankings:
  • Do use the rankings as one tool to select and compare schools.
  • Don't rely solely on rankings to choose a college.
  • Do use the search and sort capabilities of this site to learn more about schools. Visit schools, if possible.
  • Don't wait until the last minute. College matters. Take your time, and choose carefully.
  • Do think long and hard about the right place for you.
The problem, of course, is that the text above is two clicks away from the main rankings page, which lacks any sort of guidance about how to use the rankings. Why? Because the entire point of the rankings is to be a big deal, which makes US News a big deal. I can't think of a time that the magazine is in the news except for these annual rankings, which might be why Forbes just started its own rankings. Any sort of equivocation (a la "these rankings are part of balanced breakfast of high school counselors, visits, research, etc") would only hurt the impact of the rankings.

Because, let's face it: they're sexy. The world of higher ed is a heck of a lot easier to understand when you have a clear numerical order of every single US college. Far from adding any doubt, US News puts the top three in each category on a pedestal as if to say: these are the best places to get a good education because..... why? Let's see (subpoint percentages are the fraction they represent of that subsection:
  • Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent of total ranking)
    • 66% peer assessment (48% survey response rate)
    • 33% high school counselor assessment (21% survey response rate)
  • Graduation and Freshman retention (20 percent of total ranking)
    • 80% 6-year graduation rate
    • 20% freshman retention rate
  • Faculty resources (20 percent of total ranking)
    • 30% proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students 
    • 10% proportion with 50 or more students
    • 30% Faculty salary (adjusted based on cost-of-living differences)
    • 15% proportion of profs with highest degrees in their field
    • 5% student-faculty ratio
    • 5% proportion of faculty that are full-time
  • Student selectivity (15 percent of total ranking)
    • 50% entering classes SAT Math/Verbal & ACT composite scores
    • 40% proportion of students from top 10% of their high school (GPA)
    • 10% acceptance rate
  • Financial resources (10 percent of total ranking)
    • Spending per student on "instruction, research, student services, and related educational expenditures."
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent of total ranking)
    • Performance of the class of 2003 relative to an "expected graduation rate" based on Pell Grants, SAT Scores, etc.
  • Alumni giving rate (5 percent of total ranking)
    • Percentage of alums who gave to Williams two years
The above isn't quite as sexy as "Williams is the #1 college in the US," is it? In fact, it makes damn little sense, if for no other reason than that all of these ranking tools are based on different variables. Even if test scores are 1.25 times as high school performance, how do you compare school A (with avg SAT of 1400 and 50% of frosh who were top-ten percent in high school) to school B (with avg SAT of 1350 and 60% frosh who were in top-ten percent in high school). You can't!

In order to do so, you have to state some sort of equivalency between them: that every 10 points in SAT is worth some percentage of high performing students in high school. How do you set this?  How do you compare differences in faculty salary (crudely adjusted on regional indexes that have little to do with the cost of living (COI) in a college town with percentage of classes with under 50 students?

I see seven different and incomparable variables up there (reputation survey score, percentages, money, student-faculty ratio, SAT score, ACT score, "graduation rate performance.) These variables cannot be compared without an arbitrary relative weight of . No such formula is dependable unless you use statistics to make a z-score that depends on the distribution of each of the variables, but this incredibly unsexy method is still arbitrary, albeit mathematically.

So to sum up: Arbitrary comparisons of unrelated variables are arbitrarily weighted within subcategories, which are then arbitrarily rated together to produce a composite score such as "100," for Williams. And since Williams's 100 is almost certianly based on a curve, that means that every other score is also curved according to a formula that isn't disclosed.

In short: These sexy rankings aren't quite so nice looking when you strip them down.

Image source

    Williams again takes #1 spot in US News

    Again, rankings are dumb for a myriad of reasons, but that's no reason not to celebrate when they get something right. :)

    This is sourced to an embargoed AP piece, supposed to be held and unpublished until 12:01 AM tonight.

    Williams is #1, but....

    Let me start by saying I'm perfectly aware of the stupidity of biting the hand that feeds you, yet... I think some commentary is valuable here, if only for the inevitable future rankings that don't place us at #1.

    I do think that Williams is the best institution in the country, but it's not because Forbes says so. Here's why. Forbes lists the following parts for its ratings:
    • Average salaries of graduates reported by Payscale.com (30%)
    • Number of alumni listed in a Forbes/CCAP list of corporate officers (5%)
    • Enrollment-adjusted entries in Who's Who in America (10%).
    • Freshman-to-sophomore retention rates (5%)
    • Student evaluations of classes on the websites RateMyProfessors.com (17.5%) and MyPlan.com (5%). 
    • Four-year debt load for a typical student borrower (12.5%)
    • Overall student loan default rate (5%). 
    • Actual graduation rate (8.75%) 
    • Gap between the average rate and a predicted rate, (8.75%). 
    More methodology info is here (pdf), along with justifications for each data set that I don't have time to parse tonight. But here are the main problems:
    1. The average salary of graduates is, in itself, not an accurate ranking of professional success within one's field, but instead dependent on the fields that grads enter. A college with a lot of pre-Med and pre-finance students, like Williams, will do well here because of the kind of students who come here, not because we educate them espeically better. A college with a undergrad population that's into non-profit work is going to get skewered here. This same critique applies to the corporate offices part, though it's understandable given Forbes's area of focus.
    2. Rate my Professor is alien to me because we have our own system, Faktrak, which is (properly) anonymous and only accessible to students. Whatever the sample of feedback put up there for Williams, I don't trust it because it's a poor sample. Same for MyPlan.
    3. Debt load and default % will depend on the financial resources of the school and how generous its aid policies are. While resources are important, it would probably be better to measure financial aid directly, instead of this measurement, which penalizes schools that have poorer undergrad populations.
    The last thing I'll say is that using these numbers puts pressure on schools to get kids to come back/graduate when that might not be the best thing for some students. I don't want these rankings to be too important, because if they are, it makes the work of education that much more difficult. Williams is the wrong place for some people; they come and realize that a city would have made more sense, or that snow isn't their thing at all. Those are legit reasons not to like it here, but Forbes can't distinguish between those and other reasons.

    Still cool, though.


    My shared links feed has been a bit focused on the Cordoba Center recently. It's because this issue is a litmus test, in my mind, on our progression or regression as a society (and I don't mean that in the political sense.)

    Immature societies and people have a hard time comprehending, understanding, and accepting those who are different than they are. Without deep knowledge of who they are and what led them to be that way, they cannot consider the different paths available. It's the difference between looking around while walking one's path and dogmatically keeping one's nose to the ground. If we reject peaceful Muslims, than we reject tolerance, and that way leads to all kinds of nasty that I would rather not see.

    If, though, we accept and embrace the different flavors around us (including our own; I am not advocating one world culture), then we are a stronger and more secure society as a result. But such acceptance is not inevitable, and I will fight for it everyday.

    Not because I might change society, but because each mind changed is a step in the right direction.

    Why I don't think P2P is moral

     From a comment on Facebook that got very long.

    Record companies got started because of the high cost of production & distribution, since they could centralize those processes. While those are each much cheaper (esp. distribution), production still costs a fair chunk of change.

    The power of a label is that it can take a young artist and make an investment in that artist, provide facilities and promotional power, and then (hopefully) cash in on the artist's success. You seem to be suggesting that this is possible without the company, when I'm not convinced that's the case.

    Consider this: I worked this summer for a non-profit that's trying to set up micro-franchising in developing countries, where the non-profit trains and supplies a distributor who sells valuable goods (like solar powered lights & cheap medical supplies) to people in the surrounding area. The goods are cheap to produce & sell, and they make a real difference.

    BUT, sometimes the franchises fail. Goods get stolen (without police to investigate), franchise owners don't sell the stuff, and the goods might get damaged. The only way for the non-profit to protect itself against financial insolubility is to charge a small commission on the goods sold by successful franchisees, to pay for the % of franchises/training that fail.

    The real world implication of this is that while shopowners know that they wouldn't be successful without the training, and know that their improved situation is due to the non-profit, they quickly get annoyed at the % of profit going to the non-profit and claim it's "not fair." This problem is bad enough that there are suggestions to hide that hidden cost in the supply costs of the goods so that the franchisee never sees the $ going to the non-profit, but that's not open or fair.

    Yet someone could look at this situation and claim, correctly, that the people doing the real world are getting gipped and the non-profit is making a net profit off of them.

    The difference between this and the above is that a record company is for-profit. Wouldn't then, it make the most sense to make music distribution/promotion a non-profit industry?

    Justin Bieber was a success on youtube, but it took a record company to make him a star. I don't love his music, but I can't help but think that without these centralized promotion and production machines, talented artists will remain in unfortunate obscurity.

    P2P has had good effects, and the industry does have problems, but someone has to pay for that initial investment. If not a label, than who?

    Tea Party "Patriots"

    This is the most frightening thing I've read in a long time.

    Annie Hamilton: Muslim Day at Six Flags is inappropriate for a multitude of reasons and I'm saddened and shocked by the ignorance of the Corporate folks and by the action that now must be taken by the rest of us.

    First, Islam is NOT a religion, it is an ideology - the religious portion only encompasses 11 % (the qur'an) the rest is the Sira and Hadith and the closest parallel to Islam is the Ku Klux Klan - if that is Six Flag's idea of 'appropriate' then by all means, hold your day on September 12th but don't plan on expanding any time soon because not only will we ensure that you don't grow, we'll make sure that your parks become a thing of the past.

    Islam is dying in America because Americans are learning (finally) what Muslims are about, what their 'faith' is based upon, how they're recruited, how they prey on the weak, their idea of 'rights' how they cannot ever respect our constitution because it's in direct violation with Sharia and how they must abide by a set of laws called dualism, compelling them to lie to others.

    It is becoming WELL KNOWN that ISLAM IS DYING IN AMERICA, despite what you might be hearing from CAIR and others - the more it dies, the more frantic they become and the more they put out press releases about how 'fabulous' things are, new mosques, etc...(except they are broke and hitting others up for funds)
    If Islam is dying in America, it's because you and people like you are trying to kill it, Ms. Hamilton.
    STOP placating them - in addition, there is no such thing as a moderate muslim, regardless of what you've heard - from the mouth of the son of a well known Imam. Islam is as Islam does. And Regardless of what you might think, there is no such thing of a 'mild' muslim, even the 'quiet' ones who live on the street corner, drive the BMW and work in the dr's office...they go to mosque, satisfy the pillars, pray, etc...and the money they are giving, that is funding terror.

    it is funding terror - and by your silence, YOU are funding terror. YOU are funding terror.

    "With us or against us." Black and white. Good and evil. Only madness lies this way.

    Annie Hamilton
    Los Angeles, California
    P.S., I'm telling EVERYONE I know -
    I know such opinions exist in this world, but I will do everything in my power (short of advocating against the right of free speech, which is sacrosanct), to stop such words from being part of an acceptable public discourse.

    Do you remember the quote: "First they came..."

    Well, the above is "them" trying to come for the Muslims. And I won't stand for it.