September 2007
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Month September 2007

A New Look

You’ll start seeing a new look on Extended Phenotype; much cleaner and more minimal.  I was getting tired of the color and the clutter and the little lists that I never updated.  A couple of readers appear curious about what I’m reading, so I’ve retained the Current Reading list, but much of the rest needed to go. 

The new design allows me some space on the left to eventually figure out a "sidenote" solution, which I’ve wanted for a long time but still can’t quite make work with Typepad’s column layout CSS.  But given the way I write, I like to point out sources or use "footnotes" so that I can document or discuss something without interrupting the main flow (how very academic, I know), and sidenotes are a nice visual way to do that in a web context.  They’re not working yet, but I’ll keep trying.

I’m also a huge typography and typesetting nut, so I like the new look and fans of fonts will recognize the new title banner as Caslon, one of my favorite typefaces.  What I’d really love, I guess, would be a blogging system that used LaTeX on the backend and produced print-quality websites.  But hey, that’s nutty, and I can easily satisfy my interest in kerning and Computer Modern and artistic typesetting by writing scientific articles….

Multiple Patriotisms: Is it Possible For Americans To Unify Behind One Leader?

As we get into the fall season, in addition to the normal rhythms of autumn — back to school, back from vacation, buckling down for the winter — we pass another anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, and get to witness the spectacle of Congress "getting back to work" and the 2008 Presidential race kicking into high gear. 

Frankly, Americans on both sides of the aisle have reasons to dread the latter two events.  With respect to the politically motivated among Americans (however large that population truly is), neither side will actually get anything they want, and much noise and ink will be deployed in trying to convince us otherwise.  One side will not see the US signal a willing end to the Iraq War and an admission that the policy was a mistake, whether deliberate or not — because as is apparent, this is what the "anti-war left" wants.  And the other side will not see a country that "sees the light" and finally agrees unanimously that everything in the last six years is more than justified by the gravity of the threat we face — again, as everybody in the country knows, this is what the "conservative" and traditionalists in this country want.  I leave aside the less salient but still significant aspects of political opposition in this country because, honestly, these are the big issues of the day.  As with Vietnam, the nation today is split over different models of what "patriotism" requires of citizens in our current situation.

Sen. Clinton’s “Baby Bonds” and a Stakeholder Society

While not yet a firm policy proposal, Sen. Hillary Clinton endorsed the notion of giving every child born in America a $5000 “baby bond” account which would accrue until they went to college, thus helping pay for the education necessary to raise a competitive, educated citizenry.

The bashing has already begun by the RNC, who called it an irresponsible idea, requiring “devastating tax hikes on hard-working families” and would “grow the size of government at a massive rate.”

Leaving aside comments about precisely which party has been “growing the size of government” and creating skyrocketing unfunded fiscal liabilities for our country (hint: read the GAO’s GAAP accounting estimates for the federal deficit, rather than the White House’s, if you want to know what the country’s finances under the Bush administration really look like), let’s talk about the merits of the proposal.

The idea is a variant on Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman’s proposal in The Stakeholder Society, which argued that our efforts at remedying the effects of income inequality should come on the front end, with children, rather than on the back end, with adults and assistance programs. There are many good reasons for “front-ending” such assistance, including arguments that conservatives and libertarians should be attracted to.

Arguably, adults should be responsible for their actions and life choices, and except for dire circumstances, government and tax dollars should not be spent to remedy poor personal choices. Even Hayek and Friedman argue for assistance in extremity, so I would expect conservatives and libertarians to follow this line of reasoning fairly closely.

Equally, we can all agree that children, prior to achieving independence and some age of majority, are not responsible for their own socio-economic status nor the life choices made by their parents and remoter ancestors. Hence, if we are to ensure that all citizens have equal opportunity (not equal outcomes!), equalizing the starting line status and success probabilities of children is the appropriate way to do it.

This is precisely what Alstott and Ackerman argue in the Stakeholder Society, and point out that $80,000 per child born in the United States would accomplish precisely this — allowing all children the ability to go to any school, commensurate with their intelligence, ambition, and abilities, or to pursue the opening of a small business or training in a trade or specialty.

The $80,000 figure has a fair amount of analysis behind it, and clearly it’s much higher than the $5000 described by Senator Clinton. Perhaps one is more than we can afford, but the smaller figure is also less help than we need to give: $5000 compounded for 18 years at today’s money market rates ain’t a college education by any standard, even in-state tuition at a state university.

But it’s an idea that’s on the right track. Both those who believe both in fighting the effects of income inequality on life chances, and those that believe we need to hold adults responsible for their choices but help children; in other words both principled liberals and principled libertarian conservatives, ought to come together and discuss Clinton’s proposal, and the Alstott-Ackerman research that underlies it, in good faith, and without the duplicitous rhetoric that the RNC pays its spokespeople to shovel out.

Why Do Research?

A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends, and one of them asked me why I was interested in doing research, having some trouble understanding how it benefited me — was there some kind of commercial or financial benefit?  My answer at the time was probably inadequate; I replied that it was all about one’s personal satisfaction at learning new things, researching the answers to questions we haven’t yet answered.

Today I got a bit of an inkling at a more psychologically adequate answer.  That’s not to say that it’s the "correct," or complete, or the only answer, but I immediately recognized it as a gut-level truth, at least within the scope of my life.  I attended our department’s reception for graduate students and faculty, held at the beginning of the academic year, and met a number of new and returning students, many of whom (because I’ve been off doing business and other things) I’d never met. 

One of the students told me of a class taught the previous year where they’d read a paper I’d written with Carl Lipo (and likely others, I didn’t catch the exact citation, but I’m guessing Lipo et al. 1997).  He mentioned it because of the oddity of actually running into and meeting one of the authors, but for me the experience was significant.  Here was somebody who knew something about me before ever having met me — in this case, how I thought and what I thought about a topic.  He’d encountered some aspect of me as assigned reading in a class, and thus was acquainted with something I’d done and thought, years before. 

We hope to be known, ultimately, by our words and thoughts and ideas.  We hope to be assigned reading, or the fortuitous article or book encountered in the library late one night.  We hope to be the idea that causes somebody else’s project or thoughts to finally "gel" and come together.  Just as others served as the building blocks with which we had a tiny nugget of a new idea, we hope to be the seeds of someone else’s new ideas, down the road.  Most of my ideas and published works will not accomplish this, but some might, whether in a small or large way.

And with that, I greet the new academic year, secure in the knowledge that something I wrote is being read.  And that’s why I, and many others, do research. 

Apologize for technical difficulties

If you’ve had problems getting to this site in the past couple of days, it is because I recently switched providers for domain name services (DNS). My previous provider had been purchased by another company, and I was no longer happy, and so I’ve switched to Network Solutions. They do a terrific job, but of course when you switch your provider, there’s a bit of inevitable chaos as the records settle down and stabilize. I also forgot a couple of aliases (e.g., blog.mmadsen.org instead of just plain www). But things ought to be stabilizing now. If you continue to see plain text without any images, you’re (a) likely viewing this site from a Windows box which hasn’t been rebooted lately (since Windows holds onto DNS records well beyond their timeout values, it seems), or (b) you need to flush your browser’s cache.

If difficulties persist, please leave me a comment or email.

Happy Programmer’s Day

Just yesterday my friend Andy, who apparently reads this site, was complaining that I hadn’t written anything since late August. So here’s a post – though not as meaty or substantive as normal. Today is “Programmer’s Day,” traditionally celebrated on the 256th day of each year (programming….binary code….2 to the 8th power….yeah, it’s a nerd thing).

Actually, no programmers I know (including myself) actually celebrate Programmer’s Day, but it seems like one of those silly nerd memes to get in while real estate on the ground floor is still cheap. So a shout out to TimH, Bryan, Alx, another TimH, Alex, Carl, the OpsMgr gang at MS, Laird, Glomph, and the Ashworth crowd.

My favorite five programmer excuses. ‘Cause we’ve all said one of these at some point….

  1. That’s weird, It’s never done that before
  2. It worked yesterday.
  3. It works on my machine.
  4. I only changed a comment.
  5. It’s 90% done.

Regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly. I promise.