Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Randomness....

It's that time of the year again.

No, I don't mean the holidays when you travel hither and yond, visiting relatives, praying that the airport isn't snowed in -- or covered in a thick fog -- smiling as you thank Aunt Eunice for the lovely sweater she knitted using her dog's fur.

I mean the post-semester complaints from students.

All the papers have been graded -- some of which were schlepped to England, and graded on trains and planes. The course grades have been posted. You'd think that my job is now done and I'd settled into a long, well-deserved nap on the Winter Solstice.

No such luck.

The grades hadn't been posted for more than few hours and the emails began.

"Why did I get a 'D'?" Hmmm. Could it be that you didn't do all the homework and tanked on the final exam? Thought so. And no, I don't give extra credit after the semester is over because I don't feel like spending any of my precious vacation time reading the crap you were too lazy to do when you had the chance the first time.

"Can I turn in some of the homework assignments now, to raise my grade?" At one time, a long time ago, when I first started teaching, I was a soft touch. A real softy. Okay, not so such of a marshmellow that I'd let students turn in their essays in yellow ink, but I'd listen to their sob stories and give them the benefit of the doubt. Since then, the department has gotten a little tougher on students because we've seen a kid go through chemotherapy in the morning, show up for class in the afternoon, and still get his work in on time. I know that most students don't have quite that force of character, but still -- not being able to do the work that was assigned, on time, because you have other priorities doesn't make it my problem. As someone once said, A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

"Is there any way I can talk you into raising my grade?" I kid you not, I once had a student tell me that she really enjoyed my course, learned a lot, and earned the grade she got, but could I change her grade so that she would have the minimum GPA to join her preferred sorority. Uh, no. If your GPA is too low to join a House, then it's too low, period. Not to bash too heavily on the Greek system -- some of my better students have been members, but some of my less than stellar students have been too -- but I've gotten reports from two different sources that one House objected to a requirement that the memebers fullfil a minimum study time of 4 hours per week. Seems it would cut into their "social time". You want me to raise your grade, out of the goodness of my heart, so that you can join a House that might cause you to go completely off your academic rails?!

I don't think it's too much to ask that, just once, I could relax on a cold -- well, cold for a California coastal town -- winter night with my Love, drink hot cocoa, and let the worries of the past semester fall away, without students electronically jumping up and down, demanding a better grade. It makes me feel like an academic Scrooge.

To those of you in the 'real' world, I wish you Happy Holidays; to my fellow academics, try to have a quiet, student-complaint free vacation; to my students, take the holidays to breathe, assess your priorities, and prepare for the upcoming semester. If you still feel the need to discuss your grade, I'll be in my office starting the 2nd of January.

Until then, could I please have some quiet here?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Price of Randomness

I never been one for conspiracies, but something rather odd is happening at Bay Area gas stations.

In the weeks leading to Election Day, the price of gasoline had been steadily going down. Back in May, the price of a gallon of 87 octane gas was $3.25 -- by European standards that was still rather cheap, but still rather high for the US. From that high it had been steadily, by two or three cents each time, decreasing. Three months later, at the same station, the price was at $2.98.

Then the run up to the elections began. Newspapers covered the ballot measures and the various impacts each would have. One of those measures was the “Alternative Fuel fund” which would require oil companies to pay into a research fund that would make their industry less lucrative in the long run.

The price of gas began to steadily decline.

A barrel of oil hardly dipped at all, and at times would rise to a new high; yet the price of a gallon of gas continued to fall at the local station.

Within two months, the cost of filling up my gas tank dropped to a level less than it had been all year. On Election Day, it was at $2.25 – a full dollar less than it had been five months before – for a gallon of the low octane gas at the station I’d been watching. There were similar low prices at all the local stations.

The day after the election, each of those stations raised their prices. Not by a couple of pennies, but by as much as 8 cents. On Saturday, I drove by the local station and imagine my surprise when I saw that they had raised the price again, by another 6 cents: a total of 14 cents altogether.

On Tuesday gas was $2.25 and on Saturday it was $2.39! Within the space of four days, it would now cost me a little over a dollar and a half more to get a full tank of gas. In four days, the price rose to a level from which it took a month to creep down, pennies at a time.

I don’t consider myself to be paranoid or given to conspiracy theories, but something rather odd is happening at Bay Area gas stations, and I don’t think it was merely increased demand on the part of drivers – that can happen around the holidays. I think the oil companies were trying to win California voters over, making us think that gas prices weren’t that bad and we don’t really need to pass a measure that would make them pay into a fund that would go toward research that would make their own product less in demand. Perhaps we bought it, because the measure was voted down.

Then the price of gas went back up.
Photo Credit: http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/images/blpic-gasprices.htm

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Honorable Randomness

Eighty-eight years ago, on this day, the big guns of World War I were silenced. The world celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars”. For a while, this day was known as Armistice Day, a day of peace.

Then World War II came, and we had peace no more. Armistice Day gave way, to be known as Veterans’ Day. And we honored those who fought for our nation and its security.

As it was the first flower, and in some places the only flower, to bloom in the bloody battlefields of Europe, a tradition began after the 1918 Armistice of wearing a red poppy to honor those who fought bravely for their nations and the security thereof. Some still honor the warriors – from all wars – by wearing the Red Poppy.

Most, however, do not.

They have no clue what the Red Poppy means. They see the day as a holiday – freedom from work or school.

War is so removed from our everyday lives. It’s something that happens “over there”, not here. Here, we have a day of leisure and relaxation. Have a drink, it’s not like you’re going to be drafted and sent off to defend your country.

On this day, I’ll be wearing the Red Poppy in honor of those who did go off and defend our country, because war is not as removed our lives as one might think.

On this day, I’ll be thinking about the student who was called back to duty and shipped out to Afghanistan in the days after September 11, 2001. I’ll be thinking of the students who had to drop out of college because they couldn’t find a way of fitting their class schedule around defending the local airport as part of the National Guard. I’ll be thinking of the students who had to put their education on hold when they were deployed to Iraq. I’ll be thinking of them because a handful of them were in my classes.

There was the student who came to class in fatigues and said that if his phone went off, he’d have to leave because they were on alert after 9/11. Twenty minutes into the lecture, his commanding officer called. I gave him an incomplete and was pleased that he survived to finish the course when his battalion returned from Afghanistan.

There were the two National Guard students in my class who had to drop all their courses because they were required to put in 50+ hours a week defending the Santa Barbara airport from terrorists. They couldn’t attend class, and didn’t have time to study; they had to drop out because no one could tell them how long their guard duty would last. Thankfully, the silliness of guarding the SB airport didn’t last as long as some had thought – if you’ve ever been through SBA, you’d understand why it wouldn’t be high on the Al Qaeda list of targets – and the student warriors were able to return to school.

Only to have to leave it again when the National Guard was called up and shipped to Iraq, along with the recently graduated Army ROTC students. One of whom I knew wanted to go on to law school so that he could be come military lawyer. That would have to wait, the war in Iraq had begun.

It is to them, when I have a drink this evening, I toast. It is for them, and the thousands like them who will not be having a simple day of leisure, that on this day I wear the Red Poppy.

What did you do to honor them on Veterans’ Day?
Photo Credit: http://www.warmemorialsnsw.asn.au/traditions/poppies.cfm

Friday, November 10, 2006

Random Games

Most students of Political Science have heard of the Game Theory. Few have seen it in action. Over the weekend, I had the joy of doing just that.

My Gentleman and I went to Phoenix for the first weekend in November and had the (mis)fortune of staying at the same hotel as a visiting high school band. Visions of giggly, screaming, hormone-driven teenagers put a bit of a damper on our romantic inclinations. Surprisingly enough, the kids were rather quiet once 10 o’clock rolled around.

Sure, prior to that we could hear them banging around and chatting as they gossiped up and down the hallway. But the few chaperones shepherded the students into their rooms and there those kids stayed.

I was amazed at how the limited number of adults – probably in great need of sleep after a day of dealing with a marching band full of teenagers – managed to keep the kids in their rooms and out of trouble. Around 11pm, my Gentleman had gone out to get some ice for his Coke and came back with the answer.

The solution to keeping all the students in their rooms was to put a piece of cellophane tape over the gap above the doorknob on each door. It if was broken when the chaperones went to knock on the door to wake the occupants up in the morning, then all the students within that room were in trouble.

It had me thinking about Game Theory.

Given that each room has a phone, and thus the occupants could call each other and arrange a “jail break”, it would be possible to communicate and plan. All students who wished to break out and sneak from room to room could conceivably do so. The problem would be that only the last student to return to his/her room would have the telltale broken tape, as that student would be able to replace the tape to everyone else’s door, thus the only ones who would be punished would be the occupants of that last room.

Given this scenario, what would you do?
Situation A: your friend calls, asking that you come out, promising that you can return to your room before the friend, the tape on your door would be replaced and appear to be unbroken. However, you run the risk that your friend might not honor the promise.
Situation B: your friend calls and asks that you let the friend out so the tape on that door would be unbroken, while the one on yours would be, but if things get interesting for the friend, you can go back to your room and the tape on your door will be replaced.
Situation C: it’s the friend of your roommate who calls to suggest either Situation A or B to the roommate, but you don’t leave the room and will get in trouble along with the roommate if the tape on the door to your room is broken.
Situation D: cooperate with the chaperones and tell anyone who calls to bugger off.

Hmmm. Not quite Prisoner’s Dilemma nor Stag Hunt, that’s more like Chicken or Volunteer really. Perhaps we should call this one Big Band Theory

All I know is that the students seemed to pick D, because we had a lovely, restful night with nary a giggle to be heard after 10pm.

Friday, October 27, 2006

[The laptop is dead; Long live the laptop. With the salvage of some 'brain' matter from the old laptop, a couple of posts were ransomed and posted, along with a new one. Enjoy the three posted and keep an eye out for more soon, perhaps this weekend. -Editor]

Random Words Matter

You'd think that a common three-letter word wouldn't upset someone. Imagine being upset by the word "any". But that little word is the cause of a great deal of Sturm und Drang among the anti-abortion crowd of Virginia.

It comes down to one judge, one critical word, and one pregnant woman who shot herself as a form of self-induced abortion.

This mother, with little in the way of resources, beyond access to a gun, shot herself in the abdomen when she went into labor rather than face having yet another child, a child whose father was an abusive excuse for a man. A full-term child, who was about to make its entrance into the world, dead because its mother had really bad judgment all the way around.

Under Virginia law, "Any person who knowingly performs partial birth infanticide and thereby kills a human infant is guilty of a Class 4 felony." Is the mother "any" person? The anti-abortion activitists say yes; the judge says no. And rightly so.

If courts hold the mother accountable for an action that may lead in turn to the premature death of her fetus, then the courts would be opening the door to the prosecution of mothers who don't eat right, or enough, and her body rejects the fetus as a way of preserving itself. Or mothers who cannot seem to kick the habit of smoking while pregnant and the child is unable to come to term due to damage caused by that habit. Drugs, drinking, failure to follow doctors' advice, a fall down the stairs -- all could lead to the prosecution of the mother.

The human species is not generally known for its brilliance. We make piss poor decisions every day. Throw in some wildly fluctuating hormones into the mix and those decisions get even worse. As an example, take the recent report that pregnant teenagers in Great Britain are taking up smoking from the moment they find out they're pregnant in order to keep the baby's weight down and thus have a less painful labor. Not exactly Nobel Prize winning brilliance, that.

But back to our hapless mother with a bullet wound. I understand the need for such laws and the need to protect a pregnant woman from a man who's less than pleased with her and her pregnancy. This case goes beyond that. This woman was the victim of a lot of things, not the least of which was circumstance. Just like the rest of us, she should be held accountable for her actions. She should have been charged with discharging a firearm in a public place, or for making a false report. Instead, the D.A. chose to push for this Class 4 felony charge.

The judge rightly said that the woman was both victim and instigator; she does not count as just "any" person.

A look at the end of the law makes this a little bit clearer: "The mother may not be prosecuted for any criminal offense based on the performance of any act or procedure by a physician in violation of this section." Meaning that a woman may make the choice to abort late-term, but it is the physician who carries out the act who is legally responsible. As the mother, Tammy Skinner is absolved because she was not a 'physician' who shot the fetus.

All this has the moral conservatives in a tizzy. In their mind, no one, not even the mother herself, should be able to get away with shooting a pregnant woman in the abdomen, killing her fetus. To them, 'any' means absolutely any. To the D.A., 'any' means 'all'. To the court, 'any' means 'any', but not necessarily 'all' -- the mother would be included in 'all' but not in 'any' -- given the final section of the statute. If the legislature meant 'all', it would have written 'all' into the law.

Amazing the power of a simple, three-letter word.
Photo Credit: http://www.robynsnest.com/alcdrugs.htm

Cleaning out the Random

In the summer of 2005, the Socialist Government of Spain passed a new divorce law. In and of itself, that’s not too unusual. What was surprising was the addition of brand new grounds for divorce: lack of doing chores.

It is now mandatory for the newly married people of Spain to do their ‘fair’ share of the household chores. This new rule was added to the marriage contract signed in civil weddings, and if one of the partners feels that the other is not living up to the contract, then that’s a legitimate reason to call it quits.

Imagine the poor divorce judge who must decide what is a fair distribution of the chores in order to grant the divorce.

My own parents had worked out a fairly good system given that both worked full-time and jointly raised 4 girls. Dad would make sure the cars were in good running order, with enough gas to get everyone where they need to be each day, and kept the house in good physical shape. My mother did the laundry and a good portion of the cooking. Setting the table and cleaning up afterwards were done by us kids. Yard work was a joint parental project, whereas cleaning of the common rooms was a family effort. Each kid cleaned their own room and looked after their own pet. Being the much younger child, for a while there I was a chore that was rotated among the family members – until I was old enough to join in on the cleaning routine, as measured by the ability to reach the bottom of the sink while standing on a stool.

This system seemed fair enough for our family.

Spain, however, is the originating country of the Macho Male. Yet, the reaction among men toward the idea of legalizing the shared chores doctrine was mixed. Within a month of passage of the new divorce law, there were numerous ‘Chores Schools’: Places where men could go to learn how to do laundry and iron their shirts. To be taught how to be manly as they dusted. Enrollment has been steadily increasing over the past year. On the other hand, in the bars and cafes where the men come to be men, the older generation have grumbled that the law would change the cultural dynamics of the country, that the work around the house they’ve done for generations would now become undervalued. If a man is to be expected to wash and iron his own shirts, could he not expect that when he hands his wife the keys to the car she’d fix the ‘odd rumbling’ coming from the engine?

What I find interesting is the fact that even in this country the old question still exists: “What’s the difference between a cook and a chef? Gender.” What, exactly, is “women’s work” and “a man’s job” – in the modern world there hardly seems to be much difference between the two. That being the case, imagine the person or persons who must come up with some sort of exchange system: Three cleaned and ironed shirts is equal to one mowed lawn. One mopped kitchen is equal to one vacuumed livingroom. One fed and walked dog is equal to one fed and groomed cat. One dirty diaper is equal to one spit up cleaning. And so on.

While I applaud the Spanish Government in trying to generate more gender equality, I hardly think making chores legally mandatory is going to improve the lot of women. If anything, it will make life for them harder – sons won’t want to move out and get married if Mom is already doing all their chores for them. The better solution might be to establish mandatory pre-nuptial agreements in which the couples would outline the division of chores for themselves. Chores are like vegetables: they’re good for you, but no one wants to deal with them, and everyone has a preference. I’ll trade you my peas for your spinach; Clean dishes for a clean bathroom sink.

On the whole, the mandated 50% split of chores that the Spanish Government has put into place might be a good thing, in the long run, but for now it makes me wonder if there might not be some poor person who counts sex as a chore. For what chore would they be willing to trade?
Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/lancashire/lifestyle/2005/03/07/vintage_housekeeping.shtml

Virtually Random

I’ve been amazed for sometime by the ‘strict interpretists’ when it comes to the U.S. Constitution. There are more things in this modern world, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Take virtual child porn, for example.

When the Mark Foley scandal broke, folks like Matt Drudge went about saying that sending sexually explicit requests to minors by way of Instant Message doesn’t count as sexual harassment nor as moral corruption of minors. Yet, I’m willing to bet that if you asked him, he’d be up in arms at the idea that the same modern technological communication device can be used to transmit pornography. After all, he’s a member of the same crowd that was irritated with the Supreme Court for ruling, in Ascroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002), that virtual child porn – pictures that have been computer generated without actual children involved – is not covered under previous rulings on child porn, such as Massachusetts v. Oakes (1989), which made illegal the sexual abuse of real children and the documentation of that abuse for the purposes of profit.

These strict interpretists may very well say that the Constitution tells us that we citizens have the freedom of expression, but that pornography isn’t a protected form of expression. What they need to realize is that we live in a brave new world, one that the Founding Fathers never envisioned: A world in which mass communications allow us to send just about anything instantaneously around the globe. The Constitution was written at a time when it took Thomas Jefferson months to get from the newly formed United States to Paris, France; to expect the Constitution to have been written in such a way that would preclude internet porn is just plain silly. After all, pornography goes back millennia. If the Madison and his ilk had planned to say “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of expression, except in cases involving pornography”, they would have.

But they didn’t. Because they weren’t stupid.

They knew that once you start talking about specifics, it becomes a narrow path that leads to nowhere quickly. They believed that each generation would come to a new understanding as to what that document means for each era; that it would lead to national debates and discussions as to how best apply the Constitution in new situations. Now is the time for the debate as to whether virtual pornography is a legitimate form of expression.

Perhaps the Free Speech Coalition has it correct, that to make virtual child pornography illegal would have a chilling effect on the entertainment industry. Their point is that making it illegal would cause studios to stop making films such as American Beauty, which showed a minor engaged in a sexual act. The actress herself was not a minor, only played one in the movie, but because of her very believable performance, one could very well believe that it was indeed a minor having sex on film.

If the moral conservatives have their way, then those of you who watched that film have now been corrupted by virtual porn. If they’re correct, then the viewing of such ‘porn’ will cause you to believe that it’s okay for minors to engage in sexual activities – and that puts you just one step away from becoming a predator yourself.

That argument seems silly to any rational person. However, the very real debate rages on over the question of where we draw the line between the sexual abuse of a minor and entertainment. Between morally repugnant behavior and free expression. If a man taking photographs of his nude fourteen-year old step-daughter is a child pornographer, but a man making a film involving a woman pretending to be a teenager having sex is merely an entertainer; If a man convicted at the age of 19 for having sex with his 16-year old girlfriend should be registered for life as a sex offender, but a man sending sexually explicit messages to underage Congressional pages is merely ‘mentoring’, then we need to look very carefully, not at what the Constitution mentions or doesn’t mention as being legitimate forms of expression, at what our value system really is.

This is why I support such people as my friend who runs Rotten.com: people who push the boundary of what is expression, because they put the debate front and center. They push the envelope in hopes getting the rest of us out of our comfort zones and question what is, exactly, expression. They find the most horrifying, grotesque, perverted, and weird items to put on their websites, just so that the rest of us will stop taking our Constitutional freedoms for granted.

The Founding Fathers would be proud, just don’t ask them to look at the stuff.
Image Credit: http://africa.rights.apc.org/index.shtml?apc=21866se_1

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

[La Professora's laptop had a second stroke, is under the care of the resident geek, and will hopefully be up and running soon so that you can enjoy the ranting once again. - Editor]

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cover Your Randomness

Some guy in Dallas wants the local council to make baggy pants illegal. There's no need to be that drastic. But I would like to see the world a prettier place; one where I can walk down the street and not know for sure if the guy in front of me is a boxers or briefs kind of man.

I shall break the silence of women and let the guys of the world in on our secret.

Baggy pants that hang down and show off the type and color of your underwear will not get you laid.

There it is: if you want to get the woman, pull up your pants. Better yet, get a better fitting pair.

I have been privy to a number of conversations among men. They talk about being 'breast men' or 'leg men', or even that a woman with plenty of 'junk in the trunk' is attractive. They have discussed the merits and demerits of assorted feminine body parts on various scales. The gist of most of these discussions has been about how attractive women are when they display their better qualities; that these men are more likely to date a woman who dresses to impress.

What makes guys believe that women think any differently?

If you want a woman to find you attractive, baggy pants are not the option. Oh, sure, your girlfriend may say that the fashion looks good on you, but what she's really doing is protecting her investment -- she doesn't want other women to be checking out what the baggy pants are hiding: Your derriere.

That's right, tush, bottom, buns, fanny, backside: your ass. The part of your body that you are so successfully disguising as a body lump that is barely capable of holding your pants up.

So, here's the real secret: a cute man is nice, a nice personality is good, but the first thing women check out is the derriere. If you think about it, you'll know why.

If you still need help, answer this question: What is the muscle that is used the most in the act of, well, let's just call it the horizontal tango? Yeah, that's right, the tushy. Women, when inspecting a man as a potential partner, look to the best indicator of a man's prowess and stamina. If you're hiding it or worse, making it look as if you have no ass to begin with, then you are not going to pass that inspection. You'll be left wondering why you didn't get the girl, and she'll move on to the guy who knows how to highlight his assets.

But what do I know; I'm just a woman who's trying to make the world a better place, one pair of pants at a time.
Photo credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/pictures/galleries/newsid_2012000/2012747.stm

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Naturally Random

Americans are a gullible lot.

"Now 100% Natural" is the 7-Up advertisement. Their claim is that they've removed all 'artificial' ingredients and now the beverage contains only 'all natural' ingredients. The industry based newsgroup tells us that "only five simple, natural ingredients remain: filtered carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, natural citric acid, natural flavors, and natural potassium citrate."

I don't think I look that gullible. At least, not gullible enough to buy that high fructose corn syrup is a naturally occuring substance.

The problem is that most Americans do not question what they hear. 'Natural' is good; 'Artificial' is bad. No one questions why this might be, or if this is even a truism. Give me a handful of bitter almonds and cup of water, and I can make a very 'natural' drink for you. Only if you have a death-wise should you drink this: bitter almonds and water are the basis of cyanide. In this case, 'natural' is very bad indeed.

This is only one small example of what is wrong with American society; if we start buying the argument that high fructose corn syrup is 'all natural', then what's to stop political, religious and business leaders from trying to convince us that their lies are the truth?

Bush told us that Saddam Hussein was helping Al Qaeda. Now he tells us that his administration never made that connection. If that were true, then the 32% of Americans who still believe that the Iraq war is necessary to end terrorism got the idea from their imaginations.

Pope Benedict told us that he's sorry that his use of a quote which painted Islam as a violent faith offended the world's muslims and that he didn't mean to do so, but his spin-doctor tells us "While Benedict's comments on Islam and holy war may not have been 'politically correct, today much of our dialogue is fruitless because we feel constrained from saying what we really think.' "

The oil industry would have us believe that their profits are actually lower than the profits in five other industries, and the increase of the price of gas from 20 years ago is much less than the rising cost of tuition. Yet, Exxon Mobile last year made $9.9 Billion in three months. That's just one company.

Believe what you want, but think carefully before buying what these folks are selling. Else they may hand you a glass of 'All Natural Bitter Almond Juice'....

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Random Acts

On September 11, 2006, it will be the 5th anniversary of the bombings of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. With that in mind, I plan to burn an American flag.

"What?!", you may well ask.

Indeed, I plan to burn a flag. Not just any flag, rather one that truly has come to symbolize the state of the nation: tattered, torn, divided.

It won't be hard to find one -- just look at the ones stuck on cars and trucks in the wake of the 2001 tragedy, and then forgotten. The once proud symbols of citizens' patriotism are now ignored rags in need of disposal. So, I say, let's burn them.

Now, before you start having visions of La Professora starting a flag barbeque, keep in mind that 'cremating' flags is a time-honored tradition for disposing of old, worn out flags. I have no plans to roast marshmellows over the flaming flags, but rather to show the respect the ragged remains didn't get from their "proud" owners.

But a hamburger afterwards won't go amiss.
Photo Credit: www.pbase.com/ markryan/2002_spring_sf