More Domestic Policy, Damn You!
As the incredibly dispiriting election of 2004 grinds on (Oh, what I wouldn't give to be in a coma...), the focus of the campaigns remains primarily on snarky remarks and the responses to them. With the primary side issue being the whole National Security Thing.
I would really like to see more of a focus on domestic issues emerge, and not just because I think that the country would be better off if it were run by people with something resembling a coherent plan for domestic issues. The lack of attention to domestic issues is making my job harder, damn it.
As I've mentioned before (by the way, looking at that post, I see I owe Jake McGuire a GMail invite-- email me if you want it), I signed up to give a lecture on "How to Lie With Statistics" for a class on the election. At the time, my thought was that I'd be able to give a few general remarks about deceptive statistics, and illustrate them with examples from both campaigns. I thought we'd surely have a target-rich environment, given the flamboyant statistcal distortions that were the centerpiece of Bush's 2000 campaign.
Instead, Bush and his advisors seem to have decided that their best bet is to simply chant the words "September 11" over and over again, like a bunch of weirdly morbid Buddhist monks. And Kerry has been consumed with fighting off thirty-year-old smears. High-profile domestic initiatives have been almost completely absent from the campaign so far, which is making it hard to find good examples of statistical distortions.
So I'm turning to the collective wisdom of the Internet for help. There are plenty of people in blogdom who are bigger policy wonks than I am, who are more likely to know of any concrete proposals and distrtions put forth by the two candidates.
The things I'm looking for are concrete statements by either candidate that are technically true, but deceptive due to some simple statistical sleight-of-hand. A good example would be the slippery definition of "average family" that Bush used to sell his tax cut proposals (where the "average" income used was well above the median). A Kerry example would be his figure that good jobs are being lost and replaced by jobs that pay $9,000 less on average (which is based on a comparison of average salaries for really broad categories). An ideal example should be explainable in five minutes or less, with minimal math and without reference to complicated economic theories.
I'll be checking the usual sources (Spinsanity, Daily Howler, etc.) for good examples, and I may be forced to wade into the sucking swamps of the campaign web sites, but pointers to good examples of statistical distortions by either candidate would be greatly appreciated. I've been re-stocked with GMail invites, so I can also offer those as an enticement.
(I'll repeat this post, or something like it, a few more times as my lecture draws closer.)
W. W. D. C. D.?
Today was the first day of the new academic year. At least, it was the start for those who are actually teaching this fall-- I'm on sabbatical, working full-time on research, and thus there won't be much of a change in my daily routine for the next few months. It's kind of a weird feeling, actually, though some of the same back-to-class rituals have been followed all the same: I have a student working with me this fall who started today, so there was the usual running around trying to procure keys and all that sort of stuff.
One of the traditional elements of the kick-off of a new year is the Convocation ceremony, in which the faculty dress up like medieval scholars and parade around, then listen to some really boring speeches. This year, however, things were livened up by the launch of the new "House System" on campus. This is envisioned as a complete re-invention of social life on campus, with students and faculty alike randomly assigned to Houses, which are specially remodeled dorms providing nice social spaces, seminar rooms, kitchens, and big-screen tv's. The idea is to break the (perceived) stranglehold that fraternities have on campus social life, and change the atmosphere on campus.
(This strikes me as a worthy goal in general, though I'm a little dubious about some aspects of the plan as it's actually being put into practice. That stuff is all a little too close to the sort of internal college business that I've decided not to talk about on this blog.)
A major part of this plan is to create a more intellectual campus atmosphere, by increasing social contact between students and faculty. As a part of this, the annual pre-convocation faculty dinner was turned into a faculty-student dinner. Technically, I'm not really here this term, so I could've skipped out, but I do think the goal of the House System is a worthwhile one, so I decided to do my part. Also, I never pass up a chance to have the college buy me dinner.
Now, in general, I'm a fan of increased student-faculty interactions-- I invite classes over to the house whenever it's feasible to do so, and I try to make a point of going to events that my students are taking part in. Contact with faculty outside the classroom is part of the Small Liberal Arts package that they're paying big bucks for, after all, so I try to do my part to provide that.
There's a certain unavoidable awkwardness to these kinds of events, though. The day-to-day concerns of students and faculty don't have a great deal of overlap, and it can be sort of awkward to find something to talk about. I've been to several student-faculty dinners (both as a student and as a professor) where the conversation contained more awkward pauses than actual words. (At least until the awkwardness of the scene got to me, and I started babbling like an idiot to fill the gaps...)
Events like last night's dinner further exacerbate the awkwardness by being directed at a specific purpose, in this case, the promotion of the House System. You can't really just talk about the glories of the House System, though, because that makes you sound like a salesman or a politician, and you lose any shot at credibility you might've had. (An upperclass student who had been involved in setting the system up tried that, and as a conversational gambit, it fell spectacularly flat.) There's also the fact that most of the students at dinner were freshmen, and thus don't even know what the college is about, let alone this House business.
In order for the dinner to succeed in making students want to be part of a House System that promotes closer interaction with faculty, the conversation really has to be about just about anything but the House System itself, unless it's brought up by the students themselves. It's one of those conundrum type things.
On the other hand, it's not really appropriate to pitch the conversation entirely at the student level. I'm not so old that I don't remember what I was like as a freshman, and what I wanted to talk about, but on the other hand, I'm in a position of responsibility, here, and I don't think it would be appropriate to spend a great deal of time talking with them about the pursuit of alcohol and sex and drugs. I've got a large stock of stories that begin "We were drunk, and playing with fire...", some of which are very entertaining, but they're not exactly the sort of thing I feel comfortable sharing with a bunch of impressionable eighteen-year-olds (not least because some of them might look on that as a source of inspiration for even worse ideas...).
As it happens, I do have a fairly reliable test that I use to determine what to do in these situations. It's based on a visiting professor (initials D. C.) in the social sciences my freshman and sophomore years, who was noted for brining his chick-magnet Golden Retriever puppy to student parties, and hitting on undergraduates (Derek and A-Train will know who I mean). The test is very simple: if some possible course of action strikes me as the sort of thing he would've done, then I do something else. He serves as a very reliable moral anti-compass in that way.
Last night went pretty well, in the end: three of the students were fairly outgoing, and didn't require a great deal of prompting to talk. The standard and perfectly safe topics of "So, where are you from?" and "What do you think of the school so far?" provided ample conversation, and I think it all went pretty well, without much need for the D.C. test.
So, that's one House dinner down, and an effectively infinite number to go...
Drop the Names and Back Away Slowly
Kate and I spent the weekend at Worldcon, as described in great detail elsewhere. It wasn't exactly a restful weekend, but it was a good deal of fun.
I got to hang out with a bunch of SF types that I already knew (Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Mary Kay and Jordin Kare, "Charles Dodgson," Mike and Nicole Steeves), and meet a bunch of new people (including John Scalzi, Scott Westerfeld, John M. Ford, Cory Doctorow, and half of Kate's LiveJournal friends list). Along with a bunch of other people I'm too addled to remember to mention. I also came back with a great deal less cash, and a huge pile of books.
Panel highlights included Terry Pratchett describing the depradations of Goths ("They'd sack a city, and you wouldn't be able to find deep plum lipstick for weeks..."), Cory Doctorow making like Boing Boing on speed (including a description of his novel-in-progress which Patrick interrupted by saying "None of that was in the outline I read..."), and Bob Metzger describing near-death lab experiences, and explaining that space just isn't that big ("You go ten, fifteen feet past the Moon, and you're at Alpha Centauri...").
Non-panel highlights included Patrick descibing his shooting range experience (a tommy gun was described as "like firing a Selectric at somebody"), John Scalzi and Scott Westerfeld trying to get me to assault important people and discussing time-travel tourism and the David Brin Incident, and Jim Macdonald spoiling the "plot" of Alien vs. Predator. Not to mention quite a few more near-death science stories.
Book purchases were numerous, and are at home, so I can't list them off. Sleep was in somewhat short supply, food-court food was eaten too frequently, and much driving was done getting there and back. And now we're home, and the dog has been freed from The Place, and I have to get back to work...