Sunday, August 30, 2009

Scary books

I don't know about you, but the idea of black ops dentistry scares the sh!t out of me.

On immutability

Sometimes you find that you keep encountering the same thought or issue, over and over and from different angles. Every few days, something pops up that seems to point at this same concept and you can't help considering them all together.

For the last few weeks, I have been encountering variations on a manichaean division of good people from bad people. It first cropped up in this Talk of the Nation program about Michael Vick, which discussed the problem of whether he should be allowed to get rich again playing professional football. Now, I happen to think that he was legally prosecuted, convicted, and served out his sentence, and that ought to settle the issue. If he's punished further, it should be for fresh crimes, not for the same crime over and over again. But a number of callers to the program disagreed; they seemed to believe that serving his sentence finished the prison portion of his punishment, but his suffering ought to go on ... well, for the rest of his life. If people convicted of felonies have trouble ever getting a job again, that was fine; it makes for a terrific example of what not to do. It's as if, should the punishment ever end, it's as if it never happened. Or, if you're no longer suffering, than you're no longer the object lesson that you ought to be.

Later, I encountered another public radio program - which I just can't locate online, sorry - about the one of the men charged with conspiring to commit terrorism by purchasing surface-to-air missiles for shooting down commercial aircraft. Basically, you had someone pretending he was an international arms smuggler, but was really a poser utterly incapable of acquiring any such weaponry; in order to seal the investigation, the FBI made up a harmless dummy missile for him to deliver to his client - a client who was also not a real terrorist, but an accomplice in the investigation. So no terrorists and no weapons, but he's being prosecuted in what is a rather obvious case of entrapment.

What jolted me was the prosecutor near the end of the program who - without using the word - essentially spoke out in favor of entrapment. The man under discussion was "the sort" of person who might harm people, we don't want "that type" of person running loose. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's a principle of our justice system that a person is punished for what they do, not what they might do. That's why we have laws against entrapment: it's assumed that most people have more capacity to commit crime than they're ever likely to enact by themselves, so it's too easy to maneuver otherwise decent-enough people into doing something wrong, if you work at it.

This prosecutor rejects that. In his view, there are Good People and Bad People, and some of the people you think are Good are really Bad People who haven't been identified yet. Entrapment is a good way to smoke out those latter people and lock them up, just in case they were ever to act on their evil impulses.

That same weekend, the newspaper had an article on the anniversary of the Manson murders, which included this paragraph:

“Manson made a lot of victims besides the ones he killed,” said Catherine Share, who once lived with the Manson Family under the nickname “Gypsy.” “He destroyed lives. There are people sitting in prison who wouldn’t be there except for him. He took all of our lives.”

Some of my family sneered at this as an evasion of responsibility, which it likely is, but that doesn't make it a false statement. Did Manson really manage to find the few teenagers who could be so alienated as to finally commit murders? Or, to bring it closer to home, can those of us who have lived nice law-abiding lives feel so confident that we could never be turned to the dark side? I don't have that confidence; if I've always been incapable of murder, it might have more to do with cowardice than morality.

Here's my last example, a counterexample, which I found at Boing Boing:

My point here isn't about how to defeat hate, but simply that it can be defeated. Here's someone who has changed his views, is more generous and understanding than he used to be. Perhaps this isn't the best example, as it too easily fits the narrative of redemption, of turning from Evil to Good, when I'm really trying to break down Evil and Good as rigid dichotomies at all. But still - we're changeable. I hear a lot of voices which assume that bad people are Bad People, now and forever. But we're changeable. And if we're changeable, it's probably because we were never purely good or evil in the first place.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday photo

University of Michigan, January 2006

Taken from the third floor of West Hall on the UM campus. I never learned to do black and white photography with film, but I always admired it. Now Photoshop has made it cheap and easy, so any nerd with no technical skills can pretend he's Ansel Adams.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cooking the sports books

Confessions of an NBA scorekeeper

The bias is plain to see. Just look at the home-road splits. Last season, home teams leaguewide scored 101.58 points per game; road teams, 98.32. That's to be expected: Teams play better at home. What's surprising is that assists and blocks rise disproportionately for home teams — assists by nearly 8 percent, blocks by more than 15 percent. Last year's Nuggets averaged 25 assists at home, only 19.4 on the road. They recorded 7.3 blocks per game at home and just 4.7 outside Denver.

Edward Kennedy, internet pioneer

A Slate staff member twitters that Edward Kennedy was the first member of Congress to have his own web page:

If you look closely, you'll see that the site was hosted at MIT. This is about 1994, before there was anything like a or Google. I think that was also the year I bought my first PC and learned to use the internet - until someone called me on the phone and broke the connection.

One of the comments links to this blog post which has more. Betcha didn't know all that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In which Microsoft makes me giggle

Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo have teamed up to form something called the "Open Books Alliance" to oppose the Google Books settlement. You can read about it here.

"Open Books Alliance." At least they got that last part right. But it's worth noting that Microsoft is the only one who has been in the book digitizing business and they quit when they couldn't figure out how to make money at it. Now they say it's unfair that someone with a better business model will have an advantage over their own inferior business model. Yes, exactly. Free enterprise is supposed to work that way.

Let me repeat it again: Google is the only one doing this because they're currently the only ones who have both the desire and the financial incentive to do so. That's not a monopoly, at least not in any restraint-of-trade sense.

I suppose I can understand MS's confusion, though - it's a novelty for them to be on this side of a monopoly complaint.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cafferty on Canadians

Jack Cafferty points to* this article in the Detroit Free Press which describes how some Detroit hospitals have made deals with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to provide certain medical procedures that are hard to come by in Canada. He implies that this is a failure of the Canadian health care system.

My pithy reply was: "The Canadian citizen is guaranteed to get treatment, and his government is taking steps to provide it at the lowest cost. The problem here is … what?" Many commenters, I was happy to see, agreed. The point is that the ministry finds an efficient way to meet their citizens' needs and they meet those needs. It sounds like a good thing.

So what does it mean that some Canadians come to the US? Mainly, it means that Canadian hospitals aren't filled to the brim with every medical technology there is in the world. It also stems from the fact that Canada suffers a shortage of specialists; while there is easy access to general practitioners, when you're referred to a specialist there may be more of a delay (not because of any particular bureaucratic inefficiency, but just because those doctors already have full schedules and non-emergency patients get shunted to the back of the queue). Canada could certainly invest more money in its own hospitals**, but with most Canadians living within easy proximity to the US, it's arguably a wise saving of taxpayer money to make use of Detroit hospitals as they do.

The fact that hospitals are jumping on these contracts also indicates that there is an overcapacity in US medical facilities. Apparently we have more doctors and more hospital machines than we can keep busy with the number of patients who have the a) need and the b) means to pay for treatment. One suspects that (b) is no trivial factor.

Some of the commenters want to believe that the Canadian government is failing to provide doctors. This is a confusion that I see popping up all the time: mixing up health care delivery with health care payment. The Canadian government doesn't actually run health care; the hospitals are private and Canadians can still purchase private health insurance. Any hospital can purchase the equipment for these procedures if they have the financial incentive to do so and obviously Ontario is willing to make it worth someone's while to do it. So it's hard - or ought to be hard - to read this article and conclude that government has screwed up medical care.

* Actually, he mentions it, but doesn't provide a link. C'mon, CNN, you can do better than that!

** It's worth pointing out that there's a limited and specific list of tests and procedures that Ontario is contracting for; it's not like they have 19th Century hospitals.

Friday photo

Lake Hotel, Yellowstone National Park. October 2004.

Lake Hotel was my first location in Yellowstone. When I arrived to sell souvenirs in the gift shop in 1988, the building had just undergone a three-year renovation and everyone was going around cooing about how beautiful it looked. It was my first sight of the building, but they told me how it had been allowed to become something of an eyesore during the 1980's. The new concessioner, TW Recreational Services, had agreed to pour a bunch of money into the hotel and the results were good.

The building itself neatly recapitulates the cultural history of Yellowstone. It open in 1891, financed by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Although the NPRR didn't operate directly inside the park, they did carry most of the traffic -in fact, they were the driving force behind creating a national park in the first place - and were willing to invest money in making Yellowstone a desirable destination. It began as a rather plain building, but was remodeled in 1904-1905 in a colonial style that sounds bizarrely out of place in the Rocky Mountains, but is remarkably affective nonetheless.

In the early days, well-heeled visitors would pay for packaged tours that took them from hotel to hotel on carefully-scheduled stagecoaches (after 1915, in open-topped buses), where they would be greeted by singing hotel employees. Each of the western national parks had a grand hotel: the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, the Many Glacier in Glacier, or El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone's grand hotel was not the one at Lake, but rather the Canyon Hotel (which no longer survives).

Lake Hotel itself only barely survived. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's, more visitors were bringing their own cars to the park and chose to sleep in the cheaper campgrounds and lodge cabins. The hotels, built to cater to the wealthy and genteel, were fast becoming anachronisms is this new world of mass consumer culture. One wing of the hotel (oddly perpendicular to the rest of the building) was torn down in 1940 and there were even plans to demolish the entire structure except the kitchen, which would become part of a "new Lake Lodge" complex consisting entirely of cabins.

But WWII intervened. There were few visitors and no money for new construction. Then, when the war ended, the visitors returned in hordes. In 1941, park visitation had topped half a million for the very first time; after 1947, over a million visitors were arriving every year. Those people needed beds, so the notion of tearing down a perfectly functional building was scrapped and Lake Hotel was saved.

With the demise of Canyon Hotel, and the refurbishing effort of the 1980's, Lake Hotel is now the fancy-pants accommodations in Yellowstone, with lakeside rooms running $216 and a nightly string quartet in the sun room. I don't have that kind of money, so it's a good thing I worked there. It's still one of my favorite places in the world.

Let us not come together

These two videos were posted in the comments at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

And the followup interview with the crazy lady, where she's much calmer and would almost seem to make sense, if you didn't try to understand what she was saying:

What I found fascinating was how the woman almost boasts of how bad her own health care situation is. She claims she's had $15,000 in out of pocket expenses and that her husband works two jobs and has no health insurance. Assuming this is all true, a rational person would be knocking down the conductor to jump on the reform train, but not her. She has higher principles.

Or wait. No she doesn't! Her reasons for opposing health care reform are entirely self-interested: she doesn't want her money going to any illegal immigrants, or to pay for any abortions. She opposes health care reform primarily because some of the benefits may go to the wrong sort.

It's become a peculiar article of faith among conservatives that you can't improve everybody's situation; it's always a zero sum game. I call it peculiar because it directly contradicts one of the fundamental arguments for capitalism: that the rising tide lifts all boats. But I think it's difficult to overestimate the degree to which conservative Americans have been trained to hate and fear everyone else. You know those movies where two enemies find themselves in a situation where they have to learn to trust each other in order for either of them to survive? I'll bet conservatives don't understand those movies.

As Harry said, "I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Quake Lake

August 17 is the 50-year anniversary of the 1959 Hebgen Earthquake, a 7.5 magnitude quake that is the largest (yet) recorded in the Rocky Mountains.

It happened in the dead of night, just outside Yellowstone National Park, and caused a rockslide along the Madison River that buried an occupied campground and spread across the entire canyon, blocking the river, and creating a new lake which was quickly given the moniker, "Quake Lake." Downstream, Hebgen Lake tilted down at the north and the entire lake sloshed back and forth for almost twelve hours.

Some photos here from the University of Utah
Short video from the Billings Gazette

Starve a cold, feed a fever, and prattle away the flu

God is in his heaven, telling Gabriel, "Look what I can get them to do now!" I hope someone is tracking infection rates before and after the treatment and comparing them to seasonal norms.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday photo

Kepler Cascade
Kepler Cascades, Yellowstone National Park, in August 1993.

Gustavus Doane, a member of the Washburn-Langford expedition of 1870, had this to say about the Cascades:

These pretty little falls, if located on an eastern stream, would be celebrated in history and song; here, amid objects so grand as to strain conception and stagger belief, they were passed without a halt.

This is true of so much scenery in the West. Not that the East lacks beauty, not at all, but it's an older, more eroded landscape with little remaining on so grand a scale* as the West offers. There are still larger waterfalls in the Yellowstone backcountry which do not yet even have official names.

The longest drop, shown here, is 50', but the entire series of falls drops about 150'. Leaving Old Faithful and heading east toward West Thumb, you find them just a couple miles up the road. In the days before automobiles, they would have been the first "attraction" encountered by tourists on stagecoaches on the day they left Old Faithful, and they were a popular hiking destination for Old Faithful employees who had no transportation - and little free time - to go much farther from home.

This is a 1/2-second exposure, taken in the evening as I was leaving the geyser basin and headed back to Lake. The cool blue light in the shadows contrasts nicely with the warm light from the setting sun; you can see some blur in the lower branches of the tree, from a sudden gust of wind.

* Although, for grand scale, the Great Lakes need bow to no one.

PS. And how could I possibly forget Niagara Falls, which would impress any Westerner - if for no other reason than that they had no idea so much water even existed in the world.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How an open-minded museum behaves

A couple years ago, I shared a class with a student who was working at the UM's Museum of Natural History. I took the opportunity to express the shock I had felt when I encountered a set of dioramas depicting Indians in villages, doing Indian things and whatnot. An anthropology museum, sure, but natural history? As if Indians weren't humans?

The student explained to me that the dioramas were some 50 years old, that many older patrons had cherished memories of them, and the museum staff found it all a terrible dilemma. They fully understood the problem with them, but just doing away with the exhibit was not so easy to do.

A few weeks went by and one day this same student turned to me and said, "I have to tell you what happened at the museum the other day!" It seemed a handful of undergraduates, goaded by their instructor into making some exhibitionist stand against the dominant imperialist culture, had stormed the museum and loudly protested the dioramas. It was, to put it mildly, disruptive; it was meant to be disruptive (you can read part of the story here, but unfortunately the second page of the article isn't archived). Allowing themselves to be ignored would have defeated the entire operation.

What did the museum staff do? Not much, other than explain to the other visitors what was going on and why. They didn't call the police, nor did they have guards with guns and tasers hauling out these kids who were interfering with the other patrons' experience. No, they seized the educational opportunity and explained what the controversy was about.

So keep that in mind while you read Ken Ham's self-congratulatory tale of how his armed guards only threw two atheists out of the Creation Museum (one of them for the intolerable crime of wearing a t-shirt with a slogan the other visitors didn't agree with, the other for trying to film the removal). Mind you, this is his own account, pimped to show you how unbelievably tolerant he is. And compare it to what a real museum does when faced with dissenting views.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday photo

Two Friday photo posts in a row? Obviously, I've been neglectful this week.

Footbridge over the Firehole River in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin, January 2003. On a cold morning in the geyser basin, you can be guaranteed a thick fog from all that warm moisture rising up into the chilled air. These were some of my favorite times at Old Faithful.