Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Waste of Randomness

Divorce is bad for the environment. So is being single.

Used to be that a couple would stay together for the sake of the children. Now, it seems, the Environazis would like couples to stay together for the sake of the world. Scientists have studied households and their impact on the environment, and found that divorced and single people use more resources than married couples.

When a couple split and go their own ways, their electricity and water usage increases by 53% and 42% respectively. These newly divorced environmental gluttons use up 38% more products, throw out 42% – 1.5 tonne – more packages, and burn 61% more gas.

Likewise, the fact that the former couple now live in separate houses instead of the joint one points to the damage done to Mother Earth in building the additional housing and roads. Freedom, it appears, means a need for more room. Houses belonging to divorced Americans are one-third to nearly 100% larger than houses belonging to married couples. Let’s not forget that those houses must each have their own amenities: TVs, washing machines, stereos, microwaves. Each of those means more resources are used to build them.

Keep in mind, those same numbers are reported to be true for single people as well. The message here seems to be that your Mother Earth would like you to get married early and stay that way.

The best way for that to happen is to avoid bagpipes.

Seriously, the conservation N.G.O. Fauna and Flora International would like the Scots to consider cutting back on their piping. Not because some would consider it noise pollution, but because the wood used to make the instruments is harvested from a tree in Africa, known as Mpingo in Swahili, that is dying out due to over-logging. Some 70% of the trees in Tanzania have been cut down. Given that it takes 80 years for the trees to reach a height of 16 inches, it will take a very long time to replenish the forests.

Then there are the environmental ironies to consider. The world leaders are gathering in Bali to discuss cutting greenhouse gases. They got there by way of airplanes. So did the media covering the event. Here’s a solution to cutting back on pollution: stop all the jetting round to talk about pollution. In the age of modern technology, a conference call could do the trick. It’s not like the U.S. is really going to change its ways. We’re still going to be driving our large cars while complaining about the price of gas, putting up holiday displays while bemoaning the jump in utility costs during the winter, and spending far more than we earn – it’s patriotic to buy, don’t you know – and wrapping it all in paper that will just be put out with the trash after the various December holidays.

So, let the politicians talk – better yet, don’t; that’s just hot air that will increase global warming – nothing will really change unless you get married and stay that way. Come on, it’s good for the environment. Just don’t let the spouse catch you with bagpipes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Civil Randomness

Yesterday, I participated in a panel of professors discussing various aspects of Terrorism. Each of us had been given a question to prepare in advance and 15 minutes to present our answers. The question for me was “What is the threat to civil liberties in the War against Terrorism?”

As much as it grieved me to be quoting Justice Rehnquist, he had made a good point: Democracy is a fine balance between freedom and order, and in times of war, Americans have traditionally chosen to have more order than freedom. The trouble now lies in the question of whether or not the “war” on terrorism counts as one of those times.

The thrust of my talk was that civil liberties are each individual’s responsibility to defend. If one fears the government taking away one’s liberties, then one should exercise one’s political power and vote. Yes, vote. With only 19% of the college-age citizens voting, it is hardly fitting that those other 81% complain that the government is trying to restrict their rights.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states quite clearly that the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects. However, the Supreme Court, when ruling on whether that right extends to the public interaction, has consistently said that if a person has no expectation of privacy, then the 4th Amendment does not come into play.

Furthermore, the 4th Amendment is not applied to business when it comes to the collecting of personal information. That’s not to say that stealing is perfectly acceptable when done by businesses; stealing is stealing, and is punishable by law. It is not, however, a violation of the Constitution.

What is being discussed here is the collection of data on people’s purchasing habits and other bits of personal information. If you have in your wallet a credit card, a store “loyalty” card, or any other card for which you filled out an application form with your personal data, then a business has your personal information. That business can then sell your information to others.

If you have a MySpace, FaceBook, or any of the numerous other Internet blog-like pages, then you have been giving out free information. Employers are known to surf those sites for information about prospective, and current, employees. Think carefully about what your pages say about you.

I have often been amazed at the conversations I have overheard walking down the street in the vicinity of someone chatting on a cell phone. It is as if T.M.I. Chatter believes there’s some sort of cone of silence and no one can tell that Mr/s Chatter is discussing the most intimate of details. Sorry, there’s no such cone and we really can hear everything. I do mean everything, even the parts most of us would be happier not knowing.

It seems incredible, then, that citizens are complaining of the government wanting to collect the data that they are so wantonly giving away.

The Fifth Amendment only says that the government cannot compel you to give up information that may incriminate you. It does not say that the government can’t collect any information about you at all. If businesses can trade in personal information, if all of your cyber-friends can know every last detail about your life, if you blather loudly on your cell phone on a public street, you do not have an expectation of privacy, and thus should not be concerned about the government collecting your data.

What this has to do with terrorism is simple. To protect the country from those who wish to harm it from within, citizens expect their government, at all levels, to provide security. In order to make the country secure, the government has to know what is going on within the country. Data mining seems the best and easiest way to go about it.

Despite what Hollywood has fed us over the decades, terrorists are not evil geniuses. They have not figured out how to exist outside modern society and the reach of all its technology. If Barnes and Nobles can know what reading materials terrorists have purchased by tracking that information on their B&N membership card, if Visa can know what reading materials terrorists purchased at Barnes and Noble using that credit card, it should surprise no one that the U.S. government would also like to know.

In the continuing effort to keep terrorists from flying, the government has a “no fly” list of suspects, or, if you’d like, persons of interest. If your name is on the list because you are unlucky enough to share that name with someone else out there in the world who is of interest to the U.S. government, life is about to become simpler: soon, when you purchase a airline ticket, you will be asked for your birthdate. If you don’t want to share that information, do not be surprised that you will have difficulty getting through security at the airport. Furthermore, this data – your name, birthdate, and flight information – will be shared with the U.S. government. If you don’t want it to know, don’t fly; I hear the train is a lovely way to see the country, even if it is usually late.

As for me, I am La Professora; I know how to keep my technological profile low and my personal information private.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Footprint in Randomness

Nonny Mouse has recently ventured into the world of blogging and discovered the joy of having her very own internet troll. Having written a well thought out entry on the NASCAR immunization furore, she was soundly attacked by a member of what I like to call the Holier Than Thou EnviroNazis. I commented then, and now I think I will address the issue of carbon footprints here.

Everyone -- yes, everyone -- leaves a carbon footprint.

Some try to clear their consciences by purchasing offsets. This is hardly the solution that some seem to think it is. Buying offsets only means that the amount of CO2 remains the same, it rarely means that the commonly called greenhouse gases are decreased by any sizable amount.

Others get on the "Man Powered Transportation" kick and then on everyone else's nerves as they spout off on how much better their lifestyle is for the environment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those folks who deny that there is the possibility of global warming; I'm just not interested in having someone else's lifestyle forced on me.

In one of my courses, I pose the following question: Is it better to have a good decision imposed on you or to have the freedom to choose the wrong one? Almost universally the students choose the freedom to make the wrong decision. I may be only guessing, but my feeling is that most folks -- whether in college or no -- would pick the same option. I choose to drive a car, which I bought second-hand. I also choose to recycle. I've chosen my lifestyle and I'm comfortable with the amount of carbon dioxide that that lifestyle produces.

Which is very little.

I know this because I've used the Friends of the Forest Foundation website for calculating the amount. According to the site, I produce 3.62 metric tonnes per year. That's a little over 1/3 of the amount produced by the average American.

The truth of the matter is that even the best of calculators do not factor in all of the impact caused by human activity. Let's take a look at that average "My bike is better than your car" cyclist.

First, the bike frame. The traditional kind is made out of metal that had to be mined, transported, smelted and forged, then transported again. Last time I checked, those activities caused CO2. Then there are the paint, the rubber for the tires, the petroleum byproducts of helmets and biker shorts -- which, if you ask me, can be far more offensive than any carbon belching sedan -- and the various other components; the production of which causes the release of gases.

I've been accused, when presenting the above ideas, of making a "specious" argument because I own a car that is made of more of those same components. I am not arguing that my choice of transportation is better than that of the cyclist, rather that all human activity impacts the environment.

Let us then take up the issue of the ground on which the cyclist rides. The push lately has been to create special bike trails so that cyclists and cars need not share the road. To build these trails, miles upon miles of concrete must be laid. Each mile takes up a goodly amount of cement to make up that concrete. Just one tonne of cement generates about 900 kilograms of CO2. That makes the cement industry worse polluters than the airline industry, as airlines as whole produce half as much in a given year. In other words, my flight to Japan last year put out less in the way of greenhouse gases than the cement used to build -- and let's not forget repair -- the bike trail Mr EnviroNazi uses to get to his office.

I don't have a problem with cyclists and their bikes and trails; I do have a problem with the "I'm Better Than You" attitude that a few of them project. The EnviroNazis of the world like to say that I would change if only I knew what harm I was doing to the world my grandkids will inherit. I know. The choices I make are informed choices; I am aware of the impact of living my life has on the environment. If I have one more person attempt to tell me what a horrible person I am because I drive a car that uses regular petrol, they will feel the impact of my footprint.

Exhaling causes the release of carbon dioxide into the air. If one is so concerned with the release of such gases, one need only to stop breathing out.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mercenarily Random

Machiavelli is God, The Prince and The Discourses are the Old and New Testaments.

Heed the Word of Machiavelli:

"Mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and any ruler who keeps his state dependent upon mercenaries will never have real peace or security. ... Experience shows that only princes and republics with troops of their own have accomplished great things, while mercenary forces have brought nothing but harm." (The Prince, Chapter XII)

The use of mercenaries can only harm a country, never really serving its interests. This is the real reason why Blackwater U.S.A. should never have been used in Iraq by the United States government. While I do have concerns about the company's owner, Erik Prince, because of his tight connections with ultra-religious conservative groups, I have no real complaints about the existence of such a company. My problem is with the U.S. government using, often without a competitive bidding process, these mercenaries, for I have read the Word of Machiavelli.

At the beginning of this month, the Washington Post wrote on the "steep price" that the U.S. is paying for having Blackwater U.S.A. provide "security" in Iraq. Let us follow just one money trail. The primary contractor to the Department of Defense is Halliburton. The subsidiary of Halliburton in charge of the contracts in Iraq is KBR. KBR, in turn, subcontracted ESS Support Services Worldwide to provide catering and support to troops in Iraq. ESS parted out some of that contract to Regency Hotel and Hospital of Kuwait, who contracted Blackwater for a 34-man team to provide security for ESS personnel as they travel through Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. Blackwater charged Regency an average of $876 per day per person on that security team. Regency, because it too needs to make a buck, charged ESS an average of $1,100 per day per person. Because ESS charged KBR on the basis of per meal, it is not easy to know how much KBR was charged per day per person, but it would not be unreasonable to say that it was more than $1,100. Telling is how much the average mercenary on the ground got: $800 per day.

Hardly cheap, given that the average unmarried non-com gets one-tenth of that each day. General Patraeus, the commander of the forces in Iraq, gets just over half of that rate.

Some would argue that these mercenaries are not really mercenaries because they are Americans who are fighting America's cause as civilians. I'd buy that if it weren't for the fact that, in true mercenary form, Blackwater has sent a great deal of personnel hired from Chile, the Phillippines, Bosnia, to name but a few states outside of the 50 belonging to the United States. The worst part of this is that many of those from Chile were commandos trained by Pinochet's corporatist regime.

It should also be pointed out that Blackwater is not the only security firm on the ground in Iraq. There are two other contractors, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, but Blackwater is the one with the most private security "soldiers" there. As a group, it has been involved in more than 200 shootings in the past one and a half years. Most of those shootings were from moving vehicles, and Blackwater has the reputation of shooting first and not bothering to stop and ask questions second. That is hardly serving American interests.

Especially given the lack of communication and coordination between the private contractors and the military. Case in point, in March of 2004, four Blackwater contractors were ambushed, burnt and hung from a bridge in Fallujah; the commanding military officer in the region had no idea that the contractors and the convoy they were protecting would be in the area, but had to put aside his own plans and strategies in order to invade the city in pursuit of the insurgents who had executed the attack. This lack of coordination is made worse by the fact that for every 10 military serviceperson on the ground, there is one contractor. In Dessert Storm, that ratio was 50 to 1. This means that for every 10 of our guys trying to put an end to violence and insurgency, there is one guy -- with the probability of not being American -- shooting at the same people our guys are working with in order to get the job done.

It is a sad state of affairs when America begins to outsource its military. It's an even sadder state of affairs when Americans think it's a good idea. It's truly scary when some are saying that the government should be giving Blackwater bonuses, that the unprovoked shootings by those contractors are perfectly okay; after all, "Who says we have to fight fair?". Machiavelli points out that "men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future" (The Prince, Chapter XIII). Not fighting fair will hardly allow for the peaceable establishment of a secure Iraq, which presumably is in American interests. As the Blackwater employees enjoy immunity from prosecution for their actions in Iraq, the well of future peace in the Middle East is indeed being poisoned by imprudent men.

When America starts to depend on mercenaries abroad, it is only a short while before it depends on them domestically. With so many of the National Guards serving in Iraq, the usual duties of those soldiers -- disaster relief, prevention of civil unrest -- are being contracted out. In the wake of the Katrina disaster, a $73 million contract from FEMA was given to Blackwater for their 600 employees' help in the recovery operation. Blackwater's logic is simple enough: the war in Iraq will not last forever, even if it seems like it will, and so they must branch out into domestic service. The problem here continues to be a lack of accountability; under whose authority would the group fall, should their "shoot first, don't ask questions later" attitude make a reappearance in a domestic situation, is a question neither FEMA nor Blackwater seems willing to discuss.

It should be remembered, "anyone searching for the first cause of the ruin of the Roman Empire will find it began with the hiring of mercenaries" (The Prince, Chapter XIII).

Thus ends the lesson for the day. Go with Machiavelli my children.

Quotations: Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Daniel Donno. The Prince. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Image credits:
Corporate Warriors:

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Serving Randomness

La Professora is the daughter of a sailor who served his country well in the late '40s and early '50s. Equally, I have proudly taught a number of students in uniform. It was with no little aggrievement that I felt when reading the news today that 1,162 of the 2,600 Minnesota National Guard -- the longest serving ground combat unit in Iraq -- will be denied full education benefits because their posting was one day short of the necessary 730 days. Twenty-two months these soldiers have been serving their country, and someone screwed with their orders to save money.

Representative John Kline, of Minnesota, has introduced a bill to get those soldiers' their benefits. There's a good reason for the effort: the difference between partial and full education benefits is significant. Full benefits pay $800 per month, while partial benefits provide only $282. Because these soldiers served one day less than the full 730 days needed, they lose out on $518 per month. Being that a semester is about 3 months long, that works out to $1554 lost per semester.

These soldiers put their life on hold and then put it in jeopardy, yet the Pentagon cannot see clear to give them the education benefits they so rightly deserve. There is a pattern here, if only you were to look. On the health side, there were the scandal involving Walter Reed hospital, and the reports of veterans being poorly treated by the VA. Representative John Murtha, once a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and a 37-year veteran of the Marine Corps, changed his position after meeting with injured veterans of the current conflict. There is plenty of money for the ongoing combat operations, but seems that there's little in the way of funding for care for the current 185,000 injured soldiers -- a number that is estimated to rise to 700,000. The battlefield has gone techno and so more are surviving, but only by leaving a physical part of themselves behind.

Not many remember that when combat operations started in 2003, President Bush threatened to veto any spending bill that would have made permanent a raise in combat pay. Seems that the government couldn't afford an extra $75 a month for people who were putting themselves at risk. Sorry, your mortal danger is only worth $150 per month in hazardous combat pay, not the $225 we thought we could afford. Oh, and if you die, your family should only get $6,000. Thankfully, the veto threat was very short lived and soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq get $225 per month in extra pay for putting their lives on the line, and should they die, the families will get $12,000 each to help cover some of their immediate needs.

There are some who say that the war in Iraq has kept the all volunteer military from recruiting enough soldiers. That is only partially the truth. The reality is that the pay is awful: tens of thousands of soldiers and their families are on food stamps. The average soldier in the U.S. gets roughly half of what a British soldier in the same pay grade would get. Sometimes the education benefit is the only real reason why some sign up -- they see it as a opportunity to serve their country and get funding for college.

When soldiers came back from Viet Nam, they were spit upon by U.S. citizens who saw them as the embodiment of the hated war itself. In the 30 years since then, the nation has learned to treat the war-battered soldier better than that. There are a number of cars with stickers saying "Support the Troops, Bring Them Home." As a nation, we now know that soldiers should be treated with respect and honored for their sacrifices. We know that it is only fair that, having served honorably for so long, those soldiers should have their rightful education benefits.

Too bad the current administration is too busy spitting on them.
Photo credit: ITN Archive as seen on

Friday, September 21, 2007

Obviously Random

There must be some really geeky researchers out there with no social life at all. Nothing else could explain why research was done showing that women put more value in kissing than men and that women are pickier when it comes to selecting a partner.

Seems that the State University of New York needed to find out that women use kissing as a measure of how the relationship is going, while men use it to measure the likelihood that they're going to get laid. The researchers also found that men preferred "wet, tongue kisses". Surely none of this is news the rest of us out here in the real world.

Ask a woman what she thinks makes for a 'great kisser' and, dollars to donuts, she's not going to say "big, sloppy kisses". Most will agree that if they wanted a tongue shoved into their faces, they'd get a puppy.

Perhaps it's engaging in stereotyping to point this out, but women tend unconsciously to see kissing as a intimate ritual that mimics the sharing of food as done by other animals, whereas men consciously see it as mimicking the sexual act itself. Not that either is particularly a good or bad perception, but rather those are the perceptions. It is just hard to understand why anyone thought it was necessary to study what the genders get out of kissing.

Not to be outdone in their lack-of-a-social-life-geekiness, researchers at Indiana University tell us that women seek men who are able to support a family, while men seek women who are sexually attractive. Yet another study for the "Duh!" files. Lead researcher, Peter Todd, is quoted as saying, "While humans may pride themselves on being highly evolved, most still behave like the stereotypical Neanderthals when it comes to choosing a mate." In other words, no matter how 'feminist' a woman is, no matter how 'sensitive' a guy is, we're all just a bunch of cavepeople following the same old routine: He finds an attractive female, clubs her and drags
her back to his cave; she takes a look around at his collection of animal skins -- maybe even check out his kissing ability -- and decides if she's going to stay or hightail it back to her own cave.

The lesson to be learnt here is simple, even for the folks to whom this information is cutting edge: Dating is a ceremony with its dances and poses, you try potential partners out and keep the one that suits your needs; women look for long-term relationships, men for the short-term.

Don't despair, the difference isn't as great as it may seem. As Dr Glenn Wilson points out,
"Men will often find themselves falling into relationships by default after starting off looking for sexual adventure."
Photo credit:

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pardon My Randomness

Students, beware of technology. Just because it is available, it doesn't excuse being boorish.

At the beginning of the summer, I was discussing the semester that had just ended with a fellow professor. He had a particular grievance about the behavior of students these days. One of them had missed the final exam. Completely failed to show up to take the final. So, the student called his office phone and left a voice message: "Hey professor, this is Blithe. I missed the final and need to take a make up exam tomorrow. Please call me with the time. My number is ............"

The professor was complaining that not only was the student so blasé in the assumption that he was automatically going to give a make up exam, but that the student had left the phone number at a speed supersonic jets would envy.

If you're the student in question and wondering why you never got a call back, let me inform you of what everyone else is thinking right now: You're an idiot.

"In my day," said the professor, "a student would never do such a thing." Even when La Professora went to college, which was some time after said professor went, students knew that such impolitic behavior would never be accepted. If you missed an exam, you went to the professor's office and begged for mercy.

Technology has been a blessing and a curse. Students now can use the internet to contact each other from across the globe to get caught up on the lectures they missed. Cellphones have saved lives as professors have had to call 911 for students who fall violently ill in class. Laptop computers have been used to make lectures a little more interesting with slides. Yet that same technology has been used in thoughtless ways.

A recent conversation with another professor in the department was on just that topic. He told of going to a class to observe the instructor and being amazed at what students were doing in class. As he sat in the back of the class, he could see what was on the screens of students' laptops. The wireless access, for which the university had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars supplied by student fees, was being used by three students to play World of Warcraft. During lecture. Why, the professor wanted to know, did the students bother to come to class.

My own recent experience has been with the use of cellphones and blackberries to catch up with one's 'homies' while in class. Tucking the device under the desk does not make it less noticeable; if anything, it makes it more conspicuous as you are forced to arch your neck to odd angles to be able to see what you are doing. At the same time, don't assume that I haven't figured out what is going on with the laptop -- if you're typing while your fellow students are engaging in some group activity, then there's a high probability email is being sent.

Do I care? Not really. You're in class and you're at least not disturbing the flow of lecture. However, when it comes time to pull your own weight in class activities, and your laptop or blackberry or whatever electronic device you have out is in use, you're not only irritating your fellow students, you're infuriating La Professora -- the one who grades your work -- and that's not wise.

I'll let you in on a little secret, if only to help you understand how the use of technology may harm you: If you want something from a professor, do not use email or the cellphone. Case in point: a student was calling around to see what classes she could get into by asking, over the phone, for add codes. I had a student in my office asking the same thing for the same classes. Even though it was the end of the second week of classes, I allowed the student in my office to add -- the student on the phone was told the courses were full. The reason is simple. I will not enroll someone who doesn't have the dedication to get into the office and ask in person. I want to see the person before giving them permission to add. I am not going to add someone who hasn't been to the class, hasn't seen the syllabus, and hasn't the commitment to his or her education to do more than phone a professor.

Then again, perhaps I should let those folks into the class. I'm sure the other students would appreciate having someone occupy the lower end of the grade curve.
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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Loan of Randomness

By now, everyone has read or heard about the subprime mortgage crisis and its effect on the markets. Even those with the meanest of logic skills can figure out that it will affect our -- if not the global -- economy. Reports of doom and gloom abound. Yet one industry is seeing a bright side to the crisis. This industry is hopping right up to serve those debtors who are awash in debt and need to make payments on their mortgages or lose their homes. This magnanimous industry is none other than Credit Card Companies.

Visa, MasterCard, and American Express want you to know that the best way to get out your current debt crisis is to, well, go further into debt.

If you haven't been all that good at making payments on your debts, be they student loans or your phone bill, your credit report shows you to be a subprime customer, meaning that there's a higher risk that you won't be all that good at paying off any new debt you may accrue. Logic then dictates that those companies offering credit cards would avoid offering debtors like you an opportunity to owe them money. Logic doesn't seem to be Visa and MasterCard's strong point, especially given the factoids that nation-wide 1 in 5 mortgages are over 60 days in arrears -- that's 20% -- and 1 in 20 homes are now in foreclosure. Hardly a market for extending more debt; yet, compared to last year, the number of credit card offers mail directly to subprime loan holders rose 41%. At the same time, folks with good credit ratings saw 13% fewer offers.

Business analysts of all stripes agree on at least one thing: We Americans are far too dependent on debt, to the point our personal deficit rivals the government's. A Federal Reserve survey on consumer finances showed that 43% of families are spending more than they are earning each month. For those who like to see hard numbers, that means for every $100 dollars in the paycheck, the average American spends $122.

Wait, that's average and anyone worth their weight in methodology homework grades ought to know that there are three different ways of measuring "average". Here, the average given is the mean, rather than the median or the mode. What this should say is that there is some good news in the world of debt, and there is: A quarter of American households do not have credit cards; 40% of credit card bills are paid off each month and only 3% are past due by 30+ days. Only 8.3% of credit card holders owe more than $9,000. The median debt on credit cards is actually only about $2,200, which in itself is mean figure. Gender seems to play a role as to how much debt one carries: Males have an average of $2,369; females average $2,289. Or perhaps it is one's marital status: Married people have an average of $2,625 of credit card debt while non-married individuals have an average of $1,744. Then again, it could be region: People in the West are further into debt than any other region, at $2,547; people in the Midwest are the most frugal with an average of only $1,972 in credit card debt.

On the other hand, the news isn't all good. The total American consumer debt in 2004 was $1.9773 trillion, which was up 41% from 1998. It's very easy to see how we consumers went so far into debt when one looks at the figures:

The number of cards in the average wallet: 7.6 -- 2.7 bank credit cards, 3.8 retailer cards and 1.1 debit cards.

Those 7.6 cards are used to make 24% of our everyday purchases.

Most of the purchases using credit cards are considered survivor debt, charges to pay the bills. The old joke "Using Visa to pay MasterCard" isn't funny anymore.

Roughly $125 billion of American household expenses are put on credit cards. That number goes up each year.

The minimum monthly payment is now 4% of the balance, and that only went up because the government Office of the Comptroller of the Currency pressured credit card companies to raise it. Even with the new minimum, a debt of $8,000, at 18% interest will take roughly 25 years to pay off and the total bill will be $24,000 -- 300% of the original debt.

Consumer spending amounts to about two-thirds of the U.S. economy, thus the reason why the Bush administration said, after 9/11, it was our patriotic duty to go shopping.

Car loans make up 63% of the consumer debt, and if we don't by cars, Detroit will have to fire folks on the assembly line.

The job growth rate -- the rate at which jobs are added to the economy -- has been the slowest since 2003 and that means fewer people are able to get better jobs with higher wages to pay down their debt.

Wages are going down for folks with a B.A. degree, yet student loan debt is going up: in 2004 -- and we can safely say these figures have gone up since then -- 60% of students graduating from a public university had an average loan debt of $17,600. Last year, the interest rate on a Stafford loan went up 1.5%. PLUS loans are expected to increase 2.4 points to 8.5% by the time most of my students graduate and start paying off their loans. Private loans could rise to at least 12 percent. With tuition/education fees rising faster than inflation, student loans will be an even greater burden on an already cash strapped society.

The average American socks away in a savings account about 1.3% of their disposable income. To save adequately for emergencies and future expenses such as retirement, it is recommended that people save at least 10% of their income.

In 1999, the first year the IRS allowed taxpayers to use credit cards to pay their income tax, 53,300 people put their taxes on plastic. By 2003, that number rose to 313,000 people. Oftentimes, people complain about how much the government "steals" from them; yet, they seem to not care that their credit card companies are financially raping them for the privilege of using plastic to pay the tax bill.

By the way, that near two trillion dollar consumer debt doesn't include mortgages. While consumer debt averages out to be $18,654, the national average mortgage debt is $69,227 -- $102,264 if you live in the West -- thus the average household, factoring in a mortgage, two student loans, and at least one credit card, owes roughly $112,000.

The whole subprime loan crisis has become a political issue in the campaign season. Questions of what to do about it are being raised. Some want the government to step in and save debtors from the evil loan companies who sold them loans that they clearly couldn't afford.

Let's think about this for a moment. You're offered an interest-only loan that clearly will result in larger payments down the line when payments on the principle kick in and you can only afford the interest payments now; that's a sure signal that you should not sign up for the loan, no matter how hot the housing market is. A house is not an investment that can be bought and sold like an NYSE offering; it is a place to live and grow.

My answer to the folks who cry that we must protect them, that they were taken advantaged of by the loan sharks in Brookes Brothers suits, is that they knew what they were getting into and do not deserve my taxmoney to assist them out of debt. When one million homeowners are carrying more than three mortgages and 1.8 million have loans totaling more than 100% of the value of their homes, it's clear that those people aren't willing to learn to live within their financial limitations. If we allow the government to bail them out, the lesson that will be learnt is this: make stupid decisions, go far into debt, ruin the economy, but don't worry, the piper will be paid by those of us who did not.

On the other hand, MasterCard is making you an offer you can't refuse. After all, Keith Leggett, senior economist at the American Bankers Association, tell us "Consumers should be grateful that we have a very competitive market."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Random Friends

Friendship is a strange thing.

Twenty-five years ago, I became friends with a young girl from Brazil. She was the quiet type. Okay, compared to me, most folks are the quiet type. However, there was something in our outlooks on life that drew us together.

When she had time in her schedule, I’d go over to her house and we’d work on homework together. Then she’d play one of the two baby grand pianos in her living room. Now, I’d seen homes with a piano before, but two seemed a bit much. Turned out she was a bit of a genius when it came to music. I loved hearing her play. She adored my wicked sense of humour. We were good friends.

As with a great number of childhood friendships, this one fell into disrepair as she moved back to her native country and I continued my existence in the lovely but lonely Goleta; like most youngsters, we forgot to exchange contact information.

Time got away from both of us. I would go on to college, to graduate school, and to teach. She would go on to win a number of awards, to a music conservatory in Moscow, to graduate school and to teach. Different paths, similar results.

However, time was on our side as it allowed for the development of the needed technology for us to reconnect. I had just recently used the internet to help find people for my high school’s 20th class reunion – yes, La Professora is that old – and wondered if the internet would be just as useful to locate my long-lost international friend. Luckily for me, she’s rather famous and has her own website, making her rather easy to find. Using my knowledge of Spanish, I was able to guess the meaning of the Portuguese words on her site and contact was made.

Of course, the tricky part was figuring out how to write that message in such a way that it would get read – who knows what kind of weirdos might be trying to contact her on a daily basis. I kept the message short, with just enough information to remind her of who I had been, but not too much as to seem pushy or immodest. The reply I got back was wonderful.

It was like the friendship hadn’t been on hold for 24 years. Even though she was currently in Argentina for a series of concerts, we discussed how we would be able to get together to get caught up in each other’s lives. When our plans to meet at a California airport while she was in transit to a music festival fell through due to a change in flight plans, I decided “what the heck, I’ll go to the festival” if only to get the chance to hear her play the piano once again.

Which is how I ended up spending three days this summer on the island of Hawaii.

In between a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances, my ‘old’ friend and I got caught up. We discovered that even though life had taken us in different directions, our lives aren’t that far different. She still plays the piano beautifully – ‘though, these days I understand what a treat it is to have her play for me – and I still can make even the most teary-eyed person laugh with my wicked sense of humour.
Photo: Two old friends together;
I’m holding the camera, she’s standing beside me.
From all this I learned 3 things:
Some distances traveled are not just physical, they are spiritual and emotional.
A good friendship, even ignored and left to whither on the vine, can be revived and renewed.
If you’re going to travel some distance to see an old friend, Hawaii isn’t that a bad place to meet.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father of Randomness

For Father's Day, I'm honoring my late father. He was a mentor, an anchor, and a friend. And very much missed.

Curtis Jackson Wood

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Honoring Randomness

At the end of the month is Memorial Day, a holiday when those who are aware of the original purpose of the day will honor those who have died for this country. As for me, I'll be thinking of those currently serving, with the hope that next year I won't be honoring their ultimate sacrifice.

One would be forgiven for thinking that a scholar of military politics such as I would be accustomed to the cost of war. However, once in a while the War Against Terrorism is made personal to me. Such was the case earlier this month. One of my best students had to drop out of college only weeks before the end of the semester because he's being shipped out for his 3rd tour of duty in Iraq -- the first was during Desert Storm, the second during the current conflict.

What struck me the most was that he didn't believe his fellow students would care why he was leaving the class. The following week I asked the students and most said that they did care, hoped he stayed safe while there. Yet, while some pointed out that I was correct in that knowing someone who was going made the conflict a little more personal to them, most seemed to be looking forward to summer vacation more.

At the beginning of summer, when most folks see a three-day weekend, honor those who have fallen and give a thought to those who put their lives on the line as members of the military -- Give a thought to the California National Guard; the mothers, the fathers, the sons and daughters, the students who give up their everyday lives to serve in a land too far away -- may they all come home safe and next year they can have their three-day holiday weekend.

DB, my quizzes may be hard, but at least you don't need body armor to survive them. Be safe.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Applying Randomness

I worked rather hard on my application for a fellowship, but in the end it was probably my lack of a tenure track position that kept me from getting it.


The hardest part of the application was the essay portion. Applicants had to write no more than 250 words for each of the three topics. No academic is ever that concise. It is rather difficult to cover such complex issues in so little space. But I was up to the endeavor. See for yourself:

1. Define terrorism and explain how it constitutes a legitimate or illegitimate use of force. Please provide one or more real world examples about the use of terrorism to make your case.

Terrorism is a tactic used by organizations and institutions to influence or modify the behavior of a populace or a government through the use of fear or, as the term implies, terror. When this tactic is used by non-state actors, it cannot be considered to be the legitimate use of force, as this is the purview of governments. That is not to say that all acts of terrorism are de facto illegitimatized. There have been cases where governments have overstepped the bounds of the use of force to cow a population of a conquered territory and have been met with armed resistance. This resistance is then labeled ‘terrorism’. The early years of the Irish Republican Army is an example of this. However, most groups resorting to terrorism do not directly attack agents of a government, but rather the innocent non-combatant in hopes of using fear on the part of the whole population to drive the government into complying with the demands of the group. This is the case of the more recent activities of the IRA. While some groups attempt to maintain their legitimacy by attacking solely military or governmental targets, a degree of innocent civilian causalities can be expected. The likelihood of this depends on the type of
attack used. The more indiscriminate the attack – the use of bombing a clear example of this – the more likely a by-stander will be harmed. This in turn decreases the credibility and legitimacy of the organization engaging in terrorism.

2. If you could make one policy prescription to bring the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion, what would it be and what would a successful conclusion look like?

Terrorism is a tactic, thus it is diffi cult to have a ‘war’ against a tactic. To successfully bring an end to terrorism, those fi ghting against it must understand the underlying cause that drives rank-and-fi le members of terrorist organizations to see it as an acceptable tactic. Only when terrorism is seen as a symptom of a societal ill can progress be made.

Most terrorist organizations are driven by economic realities. When unemployment is unnaturally high within a segment society, that segment will engage in violence. One need only look at the gang activity within the US to see this. The solution is not to combat terrorist activities with traditional military methods, but rather go to the heart of the problem – the economic imbalance. Repression by the state, rather than economic engagement, will merely create another generation of the disenfranchised who will turn to violence as a means of self-expression. When the community has a vested interest in protecting their own economic well-being in the face of violent activities by fellow community members, a mode of self-policing can begin. The necessary weapon against the development of terrorism is economic development, not merely humanitarian aid. The current situation in Palestine is a case in point. Álvaro de Soto pointed out that there is ‘cause for alarm’1 in the dependency on handouts in that there is little in the way of self-reliance in the region. Without economic development, there will be little need for the Palestinians bring about an end to the terrorism by a portion of their society.
1 Steven Erlanger; “Aid to Palestinians Rose Despite an Embargo”, New York Times; March 21, 2007; A1

3. Discuss some of America’s successes and/or failures in fighting terrorism at home and abroad.

The lack of attacks against American soil is often offered as proof of our success in combating terrorism domestically. However, the diffi culty lies in trying to prove a negative: is the lack due to our preventative measures or their lack of attempts. Internationally, our successes have been a little more identifiable. A large number of countries have joined the United States in blocking the use of the world’s fi nancial systems by terrorist organizations, making it harder for those organizations to raise funding. Likewise, Libya, once a notorious sponsor of global terrorism, has dismantled its weapons program and distanced itself from groups such as
al-Qaeda as a result of economic sanctions.

Failures, however, are easier to identify. As Jessica Stern noted, “[The] bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.”1 The sponsorship of Hezbullah on the part of Syria and Iran has markedly increased since the start of the war against global acts of terrorism. Al-Qaeda has become a hydra, in that each time the American military succeeds in capturing or killing a high-ranking member of that organization, two or three members step into the breach. Likewise, on the domestic front, the passage of laws that decreased the civil liberties of citizens can only be seen as a failure if the purpose of fighting the war on terrorism is to promote civil liberties globally.

1 Jessica Stern; “How America Created a Terrorist Haven”, New York Times; August 20, 2003; A21

Much thanks is due to my Sanity Touchstone -- BM, you know of whom I speak -- for letting me go through my mental meltdown on his shoulder. Spring Break is over and now it's back to torturing students with homework....

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Random Connections

Across the hall from my university office are several Linguistics and Language Development instructors. When we all were told we were moving into the building, and that departments would see their professors' offices spread through out the floor, some of us were doubtful that would really lead to more collegiality among the departments -- some thought it would merely make us feel isolated. As it turned out, I now speak more often with my LLD neighbors than I do most of my department members. We've shared tips and ideas, triumps and lows, and we're all the richer for the daily interaction.

It was one of those tips that leads to today's blog entry.

Last semester, I taught the Writing for the Major course for my department. I had my students write in blogs as part of the course. That seemed to work really well, in that a good number of the students took the assignment to heart and wrote about all the issues and interests that caught their attention. More importantly, even the students who had grudgingly wrote their entries each week agreed that, by the end of the semester, their writing had improved from the sheer fact that they were sitting down and writing an entry each week. Or perhaps they were just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear.

I mentioned this to one of the LLD instructors across the hall and managed to overcome his reluctance to consider blogs as a legitimate writing tool. Or maybe he was already considering it, and told me that I had convinced him in order to get me to stop nattering on about my students' blogs. Regardless of why he decided, he now has a blog himself: The Olive Rooted with connections to his students' blogs.

Thus, if you have a chance, please pop over to his site and read what his students have to say. Or, at very least, get view on the whole CSU Contract Negotiation issue from someone who has a vested interest in the outcome.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Voting Randomly

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not in favor of mandatory voting. If the ignorant schmucks don't want to vote then they should not be forced to by the government.

In 1993, the federal government passed the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter Law) to make it easier for people to register to vote. Perhaps too easy. At one point, I had two cars; one registered in Santa Barbara and the other in San Jose -- the two places I spend a good part of the month commuting between -- and for the next two elections I received sample ballots at both addresses because the DMV registered me at both locations. If I were inclined, and I'm not, I could vote in the morning in one place and drive to the other to vote in the afternoon.

One man, one vote; one Professora, two votes....

It would seem that I'm not alone. The National Center for Policy Analysis reported that in Los Angeles County there were 78,000 duplicates out of the 3.6 million voters registered there. It would seem that a number of them took advantage of this and actually did vote multiple times.

If that weren't bad enough, the same report showed that the State of California estimated that between 14 to 24 percent of the registered "voters" were illegally on the voter rolls. Seems that the state, in its attempt to clean out possible fraud, sends out postcards to voters who haven't voted in a while, and only if the card is returned as 'undeliverable' by the post office is the voter struck from the rolls. I happen to know for a fact that the dead of Santa Barbara rise on Halloween to vote in the November elections -- my mother, who had been dead for two and a half years, voted in the 1994 election: "her" signature was there when I went to sign mine right below. Yes, I had visions of 1960 Chicago.

But even if all the "deadwood", as the Californian secretary of state calls the deceased voters, were eliminated from the rolls, it wouldn't change a basic fact: Californians, like most US citizens, do not do their civic duty on a regular basis. The state reported that in the last election, 56.2% of the registered voters went to the ballot booth. That seems impressive, except when you realize that the qualification is 'of registered voters'. Of a population just over 37 million people, fewer than 16 million are registered. What this means is that when calculating the percentage of people who voted against the total who are eligible to vote, the number drops to below 40%.

Some scholars like to point out that the reason why voter turn out has been so low is that the youth of the country cannot be made to care about politics. They may have a point. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, giving the right to vote to 18-year-olds. Thus it was that over 11.5 million voters were added to the voter rolls in one fell swoop. The following year, 55% of 18-24 year olds voted. Sadly, by 2000, that number had dropped to 37%. That was a presidential election year -- the trend is that more people, regardless of age, vote in those elections than in non-presidential elections. In 2002, a non-presidential year, youth turnout dropped to 19%.

The solution, says Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose), is to make graduating high school students register to vote or they can't have their diploma. Well, except if you're not old enough to vote. Or you're not a citizen. Or if you put your opt-out request in writing....

this could be as silly as the proposal put forward in 2004 by Senator John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) which would give 14-15 year olds a quarter of a vote and 16-17 year olds a half of a vote as a way of 'electoral apprenticeship', as "Training Wheels for Citizenship".

The problem isn't that the youth of America aren't voting -- that's a symptom of something greater: a severe lack of understanding of government and political issues. A survey of California high school students done by the California Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools showed that "Despite taking a course in U.S. government in their senior year, students' knowledge ... is modest, at best. Students only averaged a little over 60 percent correct on the commonly used survey items designed to test civics content knowledge, a low 'D' on common grading scales." Their senior year!

I'm sorry, if the high schools are turning out students who barely understand the political process, I don't want these ignorant schmucks voting. So, let's not require them to register to vote in order to graduate; let's make them score higher on civics knowledge surveys before allowing them to graduate, let alone allowing them anywhere near a ballot box.

After all, we expect immigrants to pass a citizenship test before they're allowed to vote, why should we expect less from those ignoramuses who were merely lucky to have been born here?
Photo Credit:

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Having Your Randomness and Eating It Too

Those in the know are aware that La Professora has, for some time, been studying Spanish Politics and Nationalistic Terrorism. So, it should come as no surprise to them that I would write a blog entry about the recent ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna -- Basque Homeland and Liberty) bombing in Madrid, Spain.

Last spring, when I traveled to Spain to do some research on terrorism in that country, it was only days after the group had declared a "permanent" ceasefire. My goal at the time was to write on the relationship between the democratization process and the end of nationalistic terrorism in that country. The point of the effort was a paper that countered the Bush Administration's assertation that bringing democracy to Iraq would bring an end to insurgency in that country. The ceasefire in Spain gave me at least an end point: roughly 27 years after the constitution was passed; 24 years after the Socialist Party won office away from the former regimists.

And now it seems that the permanency of the ceasefire is questionable. The Spanish government had been negotiating with the political wing of the terrorist group to bring the nationalists in line with the democratic process and a true end to the violence, and with the bombing the government has put an end to those negotiations. Juan Carlos I himself called the attack "cowardly and vile".

On the other hand, the political leader of the organization is running on the assumption that the negotiations will continue. Arnaldo Ortegi claims that peace is still at hand if "we all act responsibly". Seems that the ETA was upset that the negotiation process was not speedy enough for their liking and the bombing was, if you'll pardon the analogy, to light fire under the government. In the statement issued by the terrorists, they expressed their condolences to the families of the two victims; however, they placed the blame for those deaths on the government and the security forces -- after all, the ETA called three times to warn of the bomb. It seems only fair, the political leadership seems to be saying, that the government continue the discussions as the group is only responsible for the bombing, not the deaths that resulted from that bomb. Now, says ETA, the government will stop "constantly putting obstacles in the way of the democratic process" because they've been reminded of what's at stake. As far as the group is concerned, the "permanent" ceasefire is still valid. A clear case of the ETA believing it can have its cake and eat it too.

This bombing is just one more in the long list of terroristic acts carried out by the Basques. Whether there will ever be real peace in democratic Spain is a question that will not be answered anytime soon. But the situation does answer the question as to whether there will be a cessation of violence in Iraq if the US is successful in establishing a truly democratic state there. If Spain is still trying after nearly three decades then I can with some certainty say that there will be no quick end to the violence in Iraq, whether the U.S. Boys in Fatigues are there or not.
Photo Credit:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Random Bias

If I've taught my methodology students anything, it's that one should own up to one's biases. When doing research -- and by that I mean real research, not the stuff students do in a library -- political scientists must identify their own biases in hopes that it will make their studies more scientific. That being the case, I have always identified to my students my political ideology.

I am a good Southern Democrat -- not a Dixiecrat, which is vastly different -- a social liberal and a fiscal conservative: I believe that we should help everyone in need, just not with my tax money.

But now, I find out, I can be kept from doing my civic duty of serving on a jury for the mere reason that I am an instructor, because everyone knows that teachers are notoriously liberal and will always find in favor of the defendant.

Okay, I will admit that traditionally there have been a greater number of liberals than conservatives in the teaching profession, and there's no concrete evidence as to why that is. Some say it's because only liberals would take such a thankless job at such low pay. Some say that only liberals feel the need to serve the community, whereas conservatives only serve themselves. Still others say that liberals become involved in education because it's the only place where their ideology can be indoctrinated into the young. Perhaps there's some small truth to any of those ideas, but that would hardly explain my Republican colleagues in the department.

As I did, these colleagues gave up the possibility of very lucrative careers to be paid very little of what they are worth -- both in terms of what it took to get their degrees and what they bring to the classroom -- and they certainly do not think their job is to counteract any liberal 'indoctrination' the rest of us are accused of instilling in our students. If anything, we all rejoice in the diversity of opinion that is expressed. One of my favorite courses as an undergraduate was team-taught by a conservative and a liberal, which made for a very interesting and informative course on War.

In my classes, it quickly becomes clear: I do not care what your political flavor is, you must be able to defend your position or opinion with logically presented evidence. I have played Devil's Advocate so many times, arguing alternatively the extreme right or the extreme left positions, that most of my students forget what my ideology is. In point of fact, one budding journalist, who visited my classroom when I had a guest speaker talk about his work in a Republican assemblyman's office, wrote that I agreed with all things conservative.

Which just goes to show that the other part of Deputy District Attorney Gregory Dolge's statement, that journalists are also notoriously liberal, is wrong. The young man reporting on my visitor's presentation was clearly of the conservative bent. He follows in the footsteps of other 'notoriously liberal' journalists: Pat Buchanan, George Will, and Bill O'Reilly, to name a few.

So, thanks to the California Appeals Court, I cannot do my duty as a citizen because most of the members of my profession are liberal. My students would recognize
this -- or should, else their grade in the course be subject to question -- as an ecological fallacy, which is the origin of stereotyping. Which in and of itself is a form of bias. That's okay, said the Appeals Court; society can discriminate against me because of my profession, so long as it doesn't consider my gender into the equation.

Oh, how I long for the day when I could be excluded from the jury pool because my degrees made me "too smart" for lawyers' comfort.
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