Saturday, October 11, 2008

Library Porn

Wired has a story, with wonderful pictures, of tech entrepreneur Jay Walker's amazing library of creative class icons. My daughter sent me the link with the caption "Knowledge class style. Or, library porn. DROOL."


Friday, October 10, 2008

Slacker Uprising

Michael Moore's new film, "Slacker Uprising," chronicles the sixty-some college rallies he held in the last couple of months before the 2004 election. He was particularly aiming at getting people who had failed to vote in the past to get off the couch and vote. He wanted them to vote for Kerry and against Bush, but mostly he called on them to vote. The film is a low-budget effort, available for download. It is a decent essay of a film.

The most fun part are the incentives that Moore offers to slackers. At the massive campus rallies he asks everyone who could have voted in the previous election but didn't to stand. Then, if they promise to register and vote, he hands them "slacker necessities": a package of Ramen noodles and a pair of clean underpants. I thought it was pretty funny. The Michigan Republic Party, alas, did not, and charged Moore with bribing voters. They lost.

The best part of Michael Moore's approach is his sincere desire to get people, especially young people, to think it is their job to participate in politics. Whatever you think of the content of his other films, these rallies are pure Americana, and a noble task. At several stops local conservatives try to bribe the student organizers or college administration to rescind the invitation. The students resist this pressure. In the one case Moore reports in which the administration caved in, the publicity from their timidity was so great that the 1000 students they expected at Cal State San Marcos turned into 10,000 when the students moved the event to the county fair grounds.

There is quite a bit of anti-Bush snark, especially from some of the guests. At heart, though, the message of civil participation was noble. And of all people, slackers need to hear that message.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

To Save Your Marriage, Look for the "Marriage Friendly" Label

A study by Central Florida sociologist James Wright found that getting marital counseling from the average marriage counselor raised the chances for divorce by two or three times. What they have become, Wright says, is divorce counselors.

In response, marriage counselors who want to actually save marriages have created the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. Created by Bill Doherty (U. of Minnesota) and Kathleen Wenger (Pepperdine), the registry sorts out a problem that most people would never suspect "marriage counselors" to have -- most are therapeutically neutral on the institution of marriage.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Half of Welsh Babies Are Illegitimate

More than half of the babies born in Wales this year will be to unmarried parents. The same is true in the north part of England. Britain as a whole is likely to pass the 50% threshold within a decade if present trends continue.

In the U.S. we worry because more than a third of all births are to unmarried parents. To see that the illegitimacy rate in the Mother Country is much worse, and about to pass a tipping point, is, in a way, comforting.

I think the crucial difference between Britain and U.S. that affects birth rates is that we are a much more religious people. While it is certainly true that religiosity does not grant any family immunity from out-of-wedlock births, it does make marriage before babies more likely. How much more likely? Looking at these figures, about a fifth more likely.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sex-Change-and-Salaries Study Doesn't Quite Make Its Case

An ingenious study by Kristen Schilt of the University of Chicago and Matthew Wiswall of New York University looked at whether men's and women's salaries changed after they had a sex change. The new men earned slightly more, and the new women quite a bit less, than they had in their previous gender. Schilt and Wiswall take this as unambiguous evidence of gender discrimination. Their crucial claim is that "while transgender people have the same human capital after their transitions, their workplace experiences often change radically."

We usually measure human capital only by level of education. For these subjects, that stayed the same. However, a more biological line of research about men's and women's differences at work emphasizes that testosterone is correlated with more aggressive work, including the desire to be paid more as a measure of status. Sex-change therapy includes significant hormone infusions, which are kept up after the surgery, to change the way the new men and women behave, as well as the way they look.

We can't tell from this study what hormonal difference there was between the new women and the men they were -- the main direction of wage change. We know at least enough to ask, though, whether in behavior that affects work the subjects of this study really were the same before and after.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Amethyst Initiative vs. Choose Responsibility

I support Choose Responsibility, a national movement to create drinking licenses for 18, 19, and 20 year olds. It was the brainchild of John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College. Last year McCardell was invited to speak to the group of liberal arts college presidents that includes Middlebury about the CR idea. What came of this discussion was the Amethyst Initiative, a call by some 130 college presidents to rethink the drinking age. CR promotes the Amethyst idea.

The news stories about the Amethyst Initiative have said it calls to end the 21 drinking age, shifting back to 18, as many states used to do. This requires federal action, because Congress tied every state's highway funds to setting the drinking age to 21.

I think it would be a bad idea to simply reduce the drinking age. I expect that McCardell saw the Amethyst idea as "half a loaf," a way to get his peer presidents to at least talk about the idea publicly. I worry, though, that a half-hearted and sluggish effort to simply reduce the drinking age, without getting something in return, will doom the drinking license idea.

The 21 drinking age has failed spectacularly and relentlessly. This is true on college campuses and off. Alcohol has always been part of human society since it was first discovered, and always will be. Our best shot at civilizing alcohol is to have the adults teach the kids how to drink in moderation. Hence, drinking licenses.

Clear away the Amethyst Initiative. On with the real debate.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

"Religulous" Misses Its Own Point

Bill Maher's "Religulous" is exactly the anti-religion rant that it appears to be. He interviews religious people to make them look ridiculous. He takes sensible, caring, mainstream parts of a faith and mixes it indiscriminately with the extremist parts. He evangelizes for his own faith, secular rationalism; then, when challenged, retreats to the claim that "I'm just asking questions." "Religulous" is the film equivalent of Richard Dawkins' or Sam Harris' anti-religious books of the moment.

Maher tells us that his own religious education ended at about 13. His Jewish mother did not attempt to educate her children in her faith, and his Catholic father raised his two children as Catholics until he had a falling out with the church over birth control in young Bill's early adolescence. Maher's strong anti-religious zeal now is a relatively new development, as he was a wishy-washy "recovering Catholic" for decades. Recently, though, he has turned to a faith in rationalism beloved of many adolescent boys, myself included at that age. It is the faith that the vast majority of people on earth on ignorant, superstitious fools, and the world would be a better place if everyone were rational like me.

Yet early in the film Maher makes a different, better point. In a "gotcha" visit to the Trucker's Chapel at a truck stop in North Carolina, Maher admits that his faith is a luxury of the rich. He allows that if, for example, a man in prison said "I've got nothing in here except Jesus," Maher could respect that view. But people who are as favored as Bill Maher -- rich, famous, smart -- have the luxury of rejecting God and religion.

I believe that Bill Maher hit the nail on the head right there, as he sometimes does. He just failed to be as critical of himself as he is of everyone else through the rest of the film.