Saturday, May 18, 2002

It's a dirty job, but...

Charles Austin can channel Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D., Saudi Arabia). Does that mean we can get rid of the original one?

At least let's make sure she doesn't breed with Richard Cohen.

WORLD EXCLUSIVE - until Gato wakes up

We had the First Irregular St. Louis Blog Bash or whatever you might call it. Scarcely ever has any venue been blessed with such an array of luminaries (and me too, semiconscious as I was). And if Pat and Leo from TechTV couldn't make it, it was their loss.

Oh yeah. If you ever go to TNGs in Webster Groves, that's a fairy on the waitress's hip, not an angel. But don't take my word for it.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Porn and me - The Early Years

I once heard a joke about three kids wandering around in a park when they stumbled upon some lovers in the bushes. The 4 year old said "They're fighting". The 6 year old said "They're making love". And the 8 year old said "And badly".

Do kids learn more about sex at an earlier age nowadays than they did, say, 30 years ago? I don't think anybody would argue against that. My own experience stands in sharp contrast - I was a bookish smalltown Midwestern kid with a set of encyclopedias and 3 TV channels.

Now this isn't a "True Confessions" blog, but IMO my own experiences running into porn when I was a kid might be amusing. And it's from a geeky kid's perspective, where the book learning was far ahead of any practical knowledge.

Breasts I figured out bright and early. I knew what they were and allegedly even drew some pictures of them at a very young age, but I don't remember how I found out what they looked like. It was probably from a calendar at an auto repair shop or something like that, and probably wasn't a photograph. I didn't know what the big deal was about them though, although somehow I liked looking. Maybe it was just the fact that they were usually so ostentatiously covered (except for that June or July 1967 Playboy I found, with Lisa Baker, DeDe Lind and Sherry Jackson, the girl from "Make Room for Daddy" - I can't believe I still remember that, but at least it proves that I really did read it). Anyway, I found out what they were for biologically speaking from a book, and later on I learned of other applications and expressions like "first base".

I'm not sure when it was that I figured out that girls and boys had different plumbing. It was probably fairly late, because the rest of the family was much older and didn't wander around nude. The little girls in the neighborhood weren't helpful (but they made up for it later, believe me). That Playboy wasn't any help - I think it was about 1970 or so when pubic hair started showing up ever so coyly in mass-market men's magazines. National Geographic didn't go there either. The best information I had was the paperwork from a box of tampons mentioned a few posts ago, and that was a black and white cross-section of a woman's pelvis.

But hey, that picture made me think - if THAT'll fit in there... So even before I learned about it on the streets I deduced the ins and outs of coitus. The ins, anyway - the practical details needed work. I definitely didn't appreciate the reproductive significance, and it sounded kind of gross. I figured people probably didn't do stuff like that - what for? For all I knew, if you were into stuff like that, you'd do as well with an ear. Hey, I was little...

Then I was snooping somewhere and discovered some porn. My analytical mind went to work immediately and I examined the women closely. It was kind of frustrating though, because a lot of the photography was grainy and small, and the women were downright shaggy. It definitely wasn't up (!?) to Larry Flynt's highly-groomed brightly-lit speculum-friendly photographic standards, so I still had more questions.

I saw some practices that hadn't occurred to me either. I already knew a name for one of them too (the one you might free-associate with "Monica"), and from context I realized it was an epithet. But I hadn't associated the word with the act, and I hadn't heard it often enough to know it was considered a bad word. Until, frustrated as a faster kid eluded me in a game of tag, I hollered "you @#$@!" at him at the top of my lungs.

My parents heard (along with everybody else for blocks in those pre-AC days), and I was called on the carpet. Did I know what it meant? "No", I answered honestly. But you can bet your bottom dollar I started thinking about it. I realized it was a compound word, and eureka! - there's even a term for what was going on in those pictures! I was probably about 9 at the time.

I kept learning more things. I knew what condoms were, but called them "rubbers". I knew the machines that dispensed them (usually in a rest room of a cheap diner or bowling alley) always said "for the prevention of disease only". I didn't know what diseases those might be, but I wanted to find out. Secondhand.

(There were other machines there too, containing such novelties as a "pecker stretcher". There were also tiny topless playing cards sold one suit at a time, which I furtively acquired at a quarter or so each until I got all four.)

We kids had arguments about what certain words meant, especially the F word. We also knew the number 69 had some sort of significance, and you couldn't pour a sidewalk in town without a kid inscribing this in it. (Later I learned 68 - you do me and I'll owe you one).

Sometime around this time the Supreme Court decided that something wasn't porn if it had "redeeming social value". That explains what I found about this time. There would be a long narrative section running through it, often with some Masters & Johnson type descriptions of sex and arousal. It would be accompanied by no-holds-barred smut that had utterly nothing to do with the narrative. The performers did seem to be having a good time though.

But I didn't think of any of this as anything anybody I knew would ever do. I sure hadn't caught anyone in flagrante delicto. Or even must have been the water.

I ran into some literary things too. I wound up reading "Studs Lonigan" out of desperation, but much of it was lost on me. In particular, I asked an 80 year old relative what a "whorehouse" was. She didn't need her Ex-Lax that day.

I guess that takes me to about age 10. It's been a long time since then, a few things have changed, and I might even have learned a thing or two. I guess I'd have to conclude that the worst effect of porn that I recognize was a cultivation of unrealistic expectations - as I ran into real women later they set me straight right away.

But then this exposure didn't take place in a vacuum. Somehow I got opposing ideas about sexual continence and norms in sufficient quantity to keep me out of trouble at a time when herpes, AIDS and other treats were running amok.

I'm not sure where those ideas came from. I wasn't a churchgoer then either, I don't recall any discussion about sex with anybody but other kids, and this was before sex education. Readily available books were coy. And retrospect, I had some really bad examples. So all I can figure is that somehow it was simply subliminally built into our culture, including the understanding that those examples were bad.

I see few signs that that culture I grew up in still exists. Meanwhile porn has become pervasive, and while performers are not necessarily on the A list they aren't pariahs either. And Larry Flynt - good grief.

So although I might conclude that I didn't suffer anything I couldn't deal with, I'm not sure a modern kid has the same countervailing influences. With the result that....

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Two managers

American Heritage is featuring an article inspired by Enron about "why the boss needs a boss". Henry Ford was used as an example.

Some years back I read David Halberstam's book "The Reckoning", which compared the histories of Ford Motor Company and Nissan. It described some of Henry Ford's management practices, which were, uh, unconventional (which is no surprise if you've read much about Ford).

For one, he hated accountants. He was known to go to the accounting department and just fire everybody there. It got to the point where people would stack invoices on a scale and weigh them to get an idea of how much was owed. You know, to balance the books.

Then Alfred P. Sloan arrived at General Motors. He proceeded to invent much of modern management as Peter Drucker watched and took notes. The result was some of the best management literature ever seen, and each man gave his name to a prominent business school.

Monday, May 13, 2002

To kill a mockingbird?

If you've seen or read "To Kill a Mockingbird", you'll recall a moral dilemma that arose at the end, and how the characters dealt with it.

Stephen Den Beste gives us this case from the UK. As he puts it:
A film crew has spent the last month filming at the home of Diane Pretty, the British woman who is horribly crippled with motor neurone disease and who has been legally prevented from a merciful, rapid and painless death by British law.

It's going to be broadcast tonight, in just a few hours, on British television. Anyone who opposes euthanasia, who states sanctimoniously that "every life can still be a source of joy," should watch the program and see what a living hell her life had become.
Plenty of people die unpleasant deaths, in hospitals or elsewhere. But we don't all have film crews around for the last month and get on the BBC. That's what I find interesting about this story. IMO this woman became a pawn of someone with bigger fish to fry, just as Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe) became Sarah Weddington's stepping stone.

I certainly wouldn't trade places with this woman or her husband. But I've also heard the old legal maxim "hard cases make bad law". It's a little much to expect our entire society to change the rules so radically based on one tragic overexposed case.

I'm against euthanasia, but that's another post. What I'm interested in for now is in better ways for this to be handled. SDB referenced an article with this quote:
His wife always said she wanted her husband to help her commit suicide because she feared the choking and asphyxia often caused by her disease.
and this one:
"Diane had to go through the one thing she had foreseen and was afraid of - and there was nothing I could do to help."
SDB says "It was the death that anti-euthanasia activists condemned her to." You'd think they had given her the condition.

I see things a little differently. It's easy to say what I might have done or counseled. But FWIW if someone begged me to help them commit suicide, and I didn't have to flip the switch myself, and I didn't have to stick around and watch, I think I might just do it. Given a choice between throwing the doors wide open to euthanasia, or being a hypocrite, give me hypocrisy every time.

Then what? I suppose I'm guilty of something or other depending on the jurisdiction. So it's up to the investigators, medical examiners and prosecutors what happens next.

If they chose to prosecute, what do you think the opportunists at the Voluntary Euthanasia Society would have done? If they gave two cents about Diane Pretty's comfort they would have counseled her husband to help her commit suicide, then offered to defend him against any prosecution. But then they wouldn't have their film, and might not have had their test case. What's one miserable death when you have a chance to reform society?

Does life imitate art? We know what happened in "To Kill a Mockingbird". Suppose her husband had helped her commit suicide, and she did it. What should happen next?

Sunday, May 12, 2002

The best idea yet

James Miller scores on EconoBlog.

Jane Galt, Mindles H. Dreck and Arnold Kling contribute there too, so what are you waiting for?

Reality check

Alright, how many of you actually knew someone else who had a blog when you started?

I sure didn't. A reference to Instapundit from the Weekly Standard got me reading blogs last fall. After a couple of months looking around at various blogs it seemed that some of my favorite subjects weren't being covered, or maybe weren't getting my own perverse spin. Combine that with a long-suppressed urge to learn more about the Web and this is what you get.

As a result of this I've learned a tremendous amount and been exposed to some really terrific people. But in real life? - ha! I work among a bunch of late-20s to 50ish professionals, about 99% college grads, and I haven't run into one yet who knows what a blog is. And for the most part these people are IT professionals - I have to wonder what it's like among less-technical people.

We're reading all about Pim Fortuyn. I have yet to run into anybody who has heard of him. Jenin? Oh yeah, she's that porn star. Yasser Arafat? Well, you're not so skinny yourself.

So I'm looking forward to the Midwest Blog Bash this weekend in St. Louis. I haven't met any of the people there and I have no idea what any of them look like. But I'll have more in common with them in the first 5 minutes than I have with some people I've worked with for a year. Come see us!

Government corruption

I have a million and one beefs with Democrats and modern-day liberals, both philosophically and in particulars. But what is really aggravating is watching how they'll bray ever onward about something needing a solution, while ruling out every form that solution might logically take.

Let's consider corruption in govt, for instance. Nobody likes it. Democrats in particular should be outraged, because govt is their chosen vehicle for delivering so many social goods - their cries should be the loudest as we run the corrupt out of town. But no, they were the guys who defended Bill Clinton to the end, demonstrating that it's all about partisanship, not good govt.

Regarding corruption, what should we expect of govt employees, including our Senators and Representatives? We trust these people with our liberty, our treasury and our economy. Clearly they will be subject to solicitations for favors. What if they are compromised?

This isn't exactly hypothetical. "Charles Dodgson" writes "So the corporations are buying the laws they want."

But why does he focus on the corporations? If they're "buying laws", who are they buying them from? There's only one source of supply - the govt. So it should be clear that such corporate malfeasance (if in fact that's what it is) cannot occur unless the govt is involved. And arguably the most corrupt govts on earth exist where there are no corporations - nobody with any knowledge of history can support the idea that govts need outside influences to cause corruption.

So how do we attack this problem of govt corruption? Do we focus on the millions of people who might conceivably benefit from rule-bending or -breaking? Or do we focus on the one party that must be present to all acts of corruption, ie, the govt itself?

IMO it seems clear that the most socially efficient way to approach this is by putting more responsibility on the govt. That of course is a major undertaking, made the more complicated by the fact that the body that must implement the changes has an interest in preventing their implementation. (which is one more argument in favor of smaller govt).

But in the meantime Mr. "Dodgson" can help us by dropping this focus on corporate demonization and acknowledging that none of this could happen without the govt.

Creating a theory, part IV

I have dynamite intentions of keeping this blog from turning into The Evolution Forum, but duty calls for at least one more post.

I had hoped that this was clear by now, but let's make it even more explicit - this isn't about supporting any particular religion or theory other than evolution. And even in that, the question is limited to consideration of what I called The Theory in this post - that's my definition of "evolution", Mike Gannis.

I haven't defended religion generally or in particular, and religion is not relevant to this discussion. Thus invocation of religion is out of order.

MG: I'm not advocating anything in particular, so I can't be advocating anything that's "demonstrably false". I'm asking for support of evolution on its own merits, but you keep injecting references to others. We don't prove scientific theories by default. And when you drag religion in in disparaging terms, that IMO is "picking a fight".

MG: In #36 you said "who needs species?" (then gave me this roses/leeches thing that I'm still scratching my head about). When I responded that you needed to take the species thing up with the feds and biologists you responded as if I were avoiding the issue. No, I'm just noting that without the species you've removed the entire frame of reference. It's not for nothing that Darwin named his book "The Origin of Species".

PO: how about saving us a trip to the community college and telling us if an individual's genome remains 100% identical over its lifetime? Do we know? And if it varies, doesn't that let Lamarck back in the door?


Do men who extrapolate ever have erections?

I have to wonder. It must be terrifying - if the rate of growth were sustained long enough, Paul Ehrlich's phallus would exceed the volume of the known universe. And when it receded! - it could continue to grow smaller and smaller, perhaps forming a black hole and sucking in the entire planet.

If there's a Stupid Example Hall of Fame, the above could be a finalist. But really, some phenomena are self-limiting, and others come and go with changing conditions. And we can't say that we know what's happening beyond those most extreme data points we have available.

Take boiling, for instance. You might think that the hotter the fire you have under the pan, the faster the water in it will boil. That's true over a range, but then at a certain point the higher temperatures actually make things worse. This phenomenon must be taken into account when designing nuclear reactors, among other things. (Test it yourself with a hot frying pan - flick drops of water on it as you heat it. As the temperature rises, the drops will spread out and evaporate instantly. But at some point before you ruin your pan, the drops will form a ball and skate around the surface.)

Then there's freezing. Liquid water gets more dense the colder it gets, until just a few degrees above freezing. Then it starts to expand, so much so that by the time it freezes the ice has a lower density than the liquid around it. Which is why ice floats.

There are plenty more examples. Compressible fluids behave differently as their velocities approach the speed of sound. It's well known in medicine that "the dose makes the poison", and you can die from drinking too much water. Extrapolate biological responses to radiation doses down from Hiroshima levels to zero and the resulting predictions turn out way high. Tax receipts can actually decrease as you increase tax rates. And calculations involving subatomic particles must take quantum-mechanical and relativistic phenomena into account - simple Newtonian mechanics don't work anymore.

So we have to be careful when we extrapolate. We're familiar with the phenomena that I described above, but I dare say that we haven't seen everything yet. Especially under the extreme conditions that are found in stars or other remote parts of the universe.

Yet it is popular to presume that the laws of physics can be extrapolated all the way to their singularities or beyond. Having done so, some claim that the universe resulted from a "big bang". Who knows, maybe it's true. But the fact is, we haven't seen a big bang. So we can't know if our extrapolations have led to situations like the above, when the rules change.

Hmm. Why would scientists persist in formulating such predictions, even pushing them to be taught in our schools? Ask Bryan Preston.

Eddie Stanky, all time great

Some of you have no idea what that title is about. Heathens! (In case that results from a Y-chromosome deficiency, I'll refer you here.)

Those of you who are hardcore baseball fans might be smirking at this title. Eddie Stanky, the Brat? A guy who retired almost 50 years ago with 29 career homers and a .264 batting average? Well, bear with me.

I'm a red-blooded American who's interested in history of all sorts, so I find baseball history irresistible. You can fill shelf after shelf with baseball books (even George Will has written two) and there's still always something new. There are plenty of websites too, like the "Baseball Reference" one used earlier and permalinked on the lower right side of this page.

I'm also a numbers kind of guy, and no sport generates them like baseball. There are plenty of raw statistics, and then there are guys like Bill James who are everlastingly concocting new ones. It's to the point where they've even had to coin a new name for the field - sabermetrics (where the "saber" comes from the Society of American Baseball Researchers).

Bill James is an opinionated and prolific "sabermetrician". He released "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" earlier this year, in which he provides his ranking of the 100 best players of all time for each position. What's more, he provides anecdotes about all of these.

James's big thing nowadays is something he calls "Win Shares". It's some sort of uber-statistic which attempts to rank a player's overall value to a team in a way that transcends eras, stadiums and positions. Was Ty Cobb better than Pete Rose? James will determine the answer for all time...

James ranks Eddie Stanky 34th all-time among second basemen. Joe Morgan is #1, Jackie Robinson is #4, Craig Biggio is #5, Ryne Sandberg is #7. Want more? Buy the book, tightwad.

James isn't the only one with an opinion though. Now we have "Clearing the Bases" by Allen Barra. Barra complains that most sports point to fairly recent players as the all-time greats, but baseball points to long-dead heroes like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Barra argues in favor of more contemporary players, noting changes in the number of competitors, the impact of integration, and the accumulated wisdom of experience in their favor. So he throws out a lot of old-timers who played in days when the batter could specify the pitch, or fielders didn't wear gloves. He also scoffs at a lot of traditionally revered statistics like batting average and RBIs in favor of newer ones like on-base average.

OK, let's take a look at on-base average. After you pitch the old old-timers Barra's way, long retired players still dominate the list, with Williams, Ruth and Gehrig in the top three slots. But next comes Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez is 7th, and Jeff Bagwell, Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds and Jim Thome all show up in the top 25.

Back to our hero. Eddie Stanky retired in 1953, years before I was born, so all I knew about him were anecdotes or quotes something like "He can't hit, he can't throw and he can't run, but the little guy sure does kill you". It turns out that Stanky is 27th all-time in on-base average at .410, tied with quite respectable company - Harry Heilmann, Charlie Keller, and Jackie Robinson.

I'm sure we're not through coming up with innovative baseball statistics. OBA is actually kind of dated by now - Barra says Branch Rickey used to argue that it was superior in his time. Nowadays SLOB is getting more popular, and it'll be interesting to see how well Bill James "win shares" work.