February 2006 Archives

Kabuki Redux

Yesterday I spent an entire day, from the moment I woke up (roughly 10 AM) until I gave up and went to bed (3 AM) avoiding work on my Moot Court Brief. This work involved editing it from second draft to final draft status, based on a relatively small number of stylistic comments from my editor. This morning I woke up and, before I showered, before I ate breakfast, before I even dressed, I clenched my teeth and got to work on it. I HAD to get it done before I was to meet with my partner to put everything together this afternoon.

I just finished. Editing it took 45 minutes.

I spent 17 hours yesterday avoiding 45 minutes of work. I spent more time writing about Star Control 2 than I did polishing my argument on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

There is a Calvin and Hobbes strip that wholely embodies my work philosophy. I should dig it out of my collection and scan it or something. The gist of it is that Calvin has to do some homework assignment, and he's playing instead. Hobbes asks why he isn't working, and Calvin replies that he has to be in the right frame of mind, "Last-minute panic."

I find this broadly true for me. I absolutely cannot bring myself to work on some assignment until the last clear chance to actually get it done (that is, if an assignment will take 3 hours to do, it's very hard to get me to start working on it until late the night before it's due, and if necessary I will put it off until as late as 5 hours before the deadline). At the same time, years of this sort of nonsense have honed my ability to crank out some fairly high-quality work at the last minute. In a sense, this is enabling my procrastination; other than the torment of the Dead Day Paper Writing Kabuki Dance, there really haven't been any consequences for my lingering ways. Yet.

Now that I have a Summer sort-of job and my moot court brief is nearly crafted, I'll be able to do more outside reading and caring about non-law things. So to kick off my return to being a (somewhat) interesting person, I'm inaugurating a new series of posts on classic computer games that are seminal enough to be worth playing despite their age. Of course, that's actually a fairly large group of games, so I'll try to limit it to 1. games that can readily be found free on the internet and 2. games that are likely to actually run on a modern system. This may limit the selection down to a single game, but even if it does it's a game well worth talking.

Star Control 2 was released in 1992 by Accolade, and was developed by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III. The sequel to the fairly unremarkable Star Control, it's a game with few original elements. The gameplay is a mixture of Computer Space (the first commercial video game) and Starflight/Elite/Privateer, with fairly generic adventure elements thrown in. But all the elements come together to form a cohesive whole that works extraordinarily well.

The plot is a mixture of sci-fi tropes and cliches, but it's well-written and fun. To summarize: The human race was once part of a big alliance of races that banded together with the purpose of fighting off the Ur-Quan Hierarchy. The war between the Hierarchy and the Alliance is Star Control I. During the war, a research mission crashes on an unexplored (but hospitable) planet. They lose contact with the Alliance and build a nice little agricultural civilization for themselves. One day they find an ancient starship factory hidden under the surface of the planet, which they activate. It begins automatically building a giant spaceship. After 20 years the spaceship is finished, and they place you in charge of it. You fly back to earth to discover that the Alliance lost the war and the Human race has been enslaved. The Earth has had a giant, impenetrable energy shield placed around it, and all of humanity is trapped there forever. Except for a small group on a Hierarchy fueling station that orbits the planet. You convince them to help you try to overthrow the Ur-Quan Hierarchy with your Big Ship, and that's the essential hook for the game.

You fly around to local star systems, landing on planets and gathering resources. You spend the resources upgrading your Big Ship and buying escort ships. You also fight against hostile ships in a pretty fun melee mode (which, thankfully, you can turn over to the computer if you are lacking in the coordination necessary for success) and search for allies in your fight against the Ur-Quan.

The early game is mostly exploring and resource gathering, though they helpfully throw in enough hooks to get you started discovering the plot. Just flying around and gathering resources is fairly fun and engaging; landing on the planets is a mini-game in itself, and there's just enough stuff to buy and find to keep you interested, but not so much that it distracts you from the meat of the game, finding and negotiating with other races and searching out clues to help you defeat the Ur-Quan.

The game is helped immensely by its writing. The game is quite deep in backstory; Ford and Reiche know a thing or two about world-building. All the plot holes and silliness you may have spotted in the brief summary I gave is actually explained in loving detail in the game, gradually and artfully revealed as you converse with aliens and uncover clues throughout the galaxy. Why are the Ur-Quan conquering the galaxy? It's explained over the course of roughly 30 pages of in-game text (not all at once, of course; they only reveal one small piece at a time, through a sort of back-story striptease). Why aren't the Ur-Quan around to beat you up for trying to overthrow them? Why is the Earth left largely unprotected, allowing you to begin your rebellion? Why, that's another 25 pages of back-story, which leads you to a massively important plot point that will be of deep concern to you as you progress. Where the hell did the starship factory that built your Big Ship come from? That would be the Precursors, an ancient, possibly extinct star-faring race now shrouded in mystery and back-story. And that's on top of 40 pages of story in the game manual plus 20 pages of race descriptions.

This makes it all sound very imposing. It isn't. As I mentioned, it's all given to you very gradually, in small doses. It's the kind of backstory that makes you really want the next piece, which you can't get until you collect another 50 credits worth of bio-units. And it's all told in an entertaining way. This is not a game that takes itself too seriously. Much of the story is infused with a certain Douglas Adams sensibility, most notably in the various races you encounter. My personal favorites are the terminally depressed Utwig. Millenia ago, the Utwig fell sway to a philosophy that held that raw emotions were an inhibition to cultural and social advancement, and that, while emotions should be acknowledged, they ought to be subdued and repressed at all times. The face is the most natural vector for emotional expression, and, as such, it came to be considered highly distasteful by the Utwig. Naturally, therefore, there developed a strong taboo against showing your face at all in Utwig culture. But of course, you lose a lot of opportunity for expression when you can't show your face. Hence the evolution of an elaborate structure of Mask Etiquette. Everyone wears a mask all the time, but the Utwig have developed thousands of masks that express every possible feeling or emotion that you might normally show with your face. When happy you might wear the Domino of Unrivaled Merriment, or perhaps the Mask of Rampant Jubilation and Jumping with Ecstatic Glee. Generally, when trudging off to law school or work at the office, you'd throw on the Mask of Gruelling but Necessary Activity. Bathrooms are all outfitted with dispensers of disposable Masks of Natural Bodily Excretion. If you had, for instance, screwed up your Moot Court oral arguments, you would don the Mask of Ultimate Embarrassment and Shame. Masks even have a place in courtship; a romantic evening may involve the Veil of Flirtatious Prancing, or perhaps even the infamous Lewd Monocle.

Also, going back and playing it now that I'm older, I've discovered some things I didn't quite get when I was in Middle School. For example, the Syrene, a race of seductive humanoid females who lure enemy crews into jumping out of their ships' airlocks, fly spacecraft that look like giant orange vibrators. So the humor's all over the map, maturity-wise. But what other game lets you fly a giant orange space-vibrator?

In any case, the game comes highly recommended. It doesn't do anything notably original, but it combines a lot of elements into a uniquely fun whole, and executes everything well. What's more, it's currently available in a form which is guaranteed to work on your computer, and it's 100% legitimately free. Ford and Reiche held the rights to the code of the game, while Accolade had only the copyright to the name Star Control. A few years ago Ford and Reiche released all the source code into the public domain, which led to the creation of The Ur-Quan Masters, an unofficial (but completely legal) port of the game, with modern front-end. It's guaranteed to work on your computer; there are versions for Windows 95/98/ME/XP/2000, Mac, Linux, and BSD. It runs as a Windows-native program, so no need to fuss around with decelerators or drivers. Just install and play. I'd recommend getting a copy of the manual and star map, which can be found here. Note that you shouldn't download the actual game from that site; not just because it's illegal, but also because the Ur-Quan Masters version is far better in terms of compatibility and ease of use. Also, Star Control 2 is distinctly a game that rewards thorough note-taking.

I Prophesied the Prophecy

Huh. You learn something new every day. A prediction of the future is a "prophecy," with a C. To issue a prophecy is to "prophesy," with an S. So the first is a noun, the second a verb. Interesting. Ish.

Strange Yearnings


I am occasionally seized by ideas for projects and experiments that drive me mad until I can enact them. Some of these ideas are food related, such as the chimera that haunts my fever dreams to this day, Orange Pie. Others are sartorial, like my desire to put together a Doctor Who outfit, complete with 20-foot-long multi-colored scarf (this idea actually came to fruition, leading to an entire year of High School in which I wore said scarf every day. So when I counsel people to walk around in a flight helmet, know that I am not entirely kidding).

Today I woke up with urges mental and musical. First, I would like to memorize the entire Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's quite long, but people memorized the Aeneid to recite, why shouldn't I be able to memorize the Rime? This desire isn't really new, though; I've wanted to memorize the Rime since I encountered it in its full in college, and before that when I knew it from the flavor text of various Magic: The Gathering cards.

What's new is the musical aspect. Like most of the poems of Emily Dickinson, the Rime is written in Common Meter. As you know, Bob, poems written in Common Meter can be sung to a wide variety of songs, most prominently Yellow Rose of Texas. But there are some other interesting options, too, at very divergent speeds: (Hey!) You Got To Hide Your Love Away (By the Beatles) (Very slow), House of the Rising Sun (Also very slow), Beverly Hillbillies Theme (Very fast), Amazing Grace (Very slow), Auld Lang Syne (Pretty Slow), etc.

But the siren's song for me is the one that strikes me as absolutely thematically perfect: The Theme Song to Gilligan's Island. So now I feel compelled to, first, memorize the Rime, and second, learn to play the Gilligan's Island theme on the banjo. Then I can serenade people with my tale of woe, or sin, punishment and redemption on the high seas, of albatrosses and dead winds and desparation and zombie sailors, all while evoking the primal cultural images of Bob Denver, Mary Ann, and toasters made out of coconuts. It's all very Joseph Campbell Power of Myth.

So if all goes to plan, I should at some point in the near future have a very esoteric party trick.

Hot Pot City


I got a new set of cookware from Amazon, and it arrived today. Up until now I've been getting by with some very cheap generic non-stick cookware that I bought from the student store, seen here:


As you will note from the photo, the non-stick is peeling off the bottom. This, it hardly bears mentioning, is a bad thing. The teflon would tend to come off whilst cooking, peppering my dishes with non-stick (possibly carcinogenic) flakes. What's more, it made cooking a pain; after the initial flakes came off, water would soak in to the pot, squeezing in between the teflon and the metal. Later, when I would cook something else, the trapped water would evaporate and expand, forming bubbles beneath the teflon that would eventually explode. This is highly disconcerting, particularly if you're using the pot to heat oil, an activity about which I am already unduly paranoid. (Note: I know how to handle teflon. I've been using teflon cookware for years. I know not to use metal implements or abrasive scrubbers, and I know not to heat it to high, particularly if there's nothing in it. This, however, is cheap teflon that just started peeling off after a few months regular use. Bear in mind that this 7 piece set cost, I believe, $20) A few days ago, I decided to toss the cheap pots and pans and get something decent.

I already had a Cuisinart hard-anodized skillet that I was very fond of, along with a 2 quart saucepan of the same make and model. I also had a nice stainless steel stockpot with pasta strainer. So I wouldn't be starting from nothing. After looking around Amazon (which has some nice deals on cookware sets right now) I decided on a 10-piece set of Cuisinart hard-anodized cookware. I'd end up with a duplicate 8-inch skillet, as well as an 8-quart stockpot that I didn't need, but it was still a good deal for what I was looking for.

The set arrived today. You can tell it's high-quality because it arives in Matryushka Boxes:


So here it is, my new 10 piece set:


It has an 8-inch skillet, a 10-inch skillet, a 1 1/2 quart saucepan with lid, a 3 quart saucepan with lid, a 3 1/2 quart sautee pan with lid, and an 8 quart stockpot with lid. The pots themselves have three layers; the interior layer is aluminum. The exterior is anodized (meaning coated in a hard aluminum oxide compound) and the interior is a substance goofily named Quantanium. It is, essentially, a hybrid of titanium and teflon. The upshot is that it's non-stick like teflon, but more firmly attached to the pan and resistant to the various things that cause teflon to come off. My impression is that quantanium coating is a sort of middle-ground between the cheap teflon of my old pans and the high-quality never-comes-off teflon you get in Scanpan cookware. They claim that you can use metal implements in these pans, but they follow that up with a disclaimer that essentially says "but don't go nuts." I get the impression that you can use, for instance, a metal whisk or a spoon in it, but that it would be foolish to take a knife to it or use a fork to scrape food out.

I've been very happy with the way my other hard-anodized cookware works. No problems with the teflon at all, the material has a nice heft without being too heavy. The frying pans have curvy edges that make it easy to get under the food with a turner. The pans heat quickly and evenly, so you don't get hot spots and cold spots. And the handles are very firmly attached, unlike the loose handles you get on cheap teflon cookware. The one complaint I have is that the handles are metal and tend to heat up a bit along with the pot. They seldom get untouchable, but I find myself having to use an oven mit to handle them more often than with other pots. Otherwise, though, I've been quite happy, and I hope to be equally happy with my new cookware.

So that's that. It joins the old cookware that I'll be keeping:


And now I need to do something with the old teflon stuff. Would anyone like some free, disintegrating, possibly carcinogenic teflon pans? Any interesting ideas of things to do with old pots? Or should I just throw them out? I'll be trying out my new cookware making Dianna's Some Kind of Caribbean Rice and Bean Skillet Thing.


This story has been making the rounds in certain circles of blogdom, and I thought it bore some comment. The relevant portion of the story is reproduced in its entirety below:

Sexually abusing a teenager is less serious a crime if the girl is not a virgin, Italy's higher court said on Friday in a controversial ruling that immediately drew a barrage of criticism.

The court ruled in favor of a man in his forties, identified only as Marco T., who forced his 14-year old stepdaughter to have oral sex with him after she refused intercourse.

The man, who has been sentenced to three years and four months in jail, lodged an appeal arguing that the fact that his stepdaughter had had sex with men before should have been taken into consideration during his trial as a mitigating factor.

The supreme court agreed, saying that because of her previous sexual experiences, the victim's "personality, from a sexual point of view, is much more developed than what would be normally expected of a girl of her age".

"It is therefore fair to argue that (the damage for the victim) would be lower" if the abused girl was not a virgin, Italian news agencies quoted the court as saying.

This means the man could now be handed a lighter sentence.

Let me start by saying that I think the Italian supreme court is wrong here. Nonetheless, I hesitate to condemn their legal reasoning as entirely off-bases. My hesitation comes because I'm not aware of Italian doctrine on the matter of culpability for extent of damage.

In the US, generally the act itself is what you're punished for. If you assault somebody it's the same penalty whether it's particularly nasty or comparatively less bad. There are mitigating factors, but these tend to be actions as well (Whether it was a first offense, whether the perpetrator pleads guilty, whether the perpetrator shows remorse, whether they realized what they'd done and called an ambulance after, that sort of thing). The one case I can think of where extent matters is if you assault somebody and the victim dies as a result, but in that case it's moving from one category of crimes, assault, to another, murder/manslaughter.

There has been movement in recent years towards victim's rights in criminal trials, and I'm highly skeptical of it. The state, not the victim, puts criminals on trials. When you are charged with a crime, you're being charged with having committed a transgression so great that you didn't just harm the victim, you harmed society as a whole. The matter is taken out of the victim's hands. What's important, then, is the criminal's act, and the damage he happened to cause is secondary. We're concerned with punishing the act of rape, rather than ensuring that, in this case, the criminal is punished in proportion to the amount of damage he caused the victim.

Moreover, to the extent we care about harm to the victim we're interested in the victim's opinion of the crime (sometimes, where there's flexibility in the judge's sentencing, they'll ask victims to fill out statements describing the extent of their harm and how they feel the perpetrator should be punished). We don't, however, establish some universal metric for how much damage would have been caused in the average case. "Normally being assaulted by your stepfather as a 14 year old causes 20 Megafreuds of psychological damage. However, if she's previously had sexual relations, it reduces the damage by 5 Megafreuds."

First, it's difficult to tell how psychologically damaging an assault is, and you certainly won't get an accurate picture by deriving universal standards based on whether the victim was a virgin or not, or any other factors you might care to test. It's also problematic to use damage to the victim as a mitigating factor. Should there be a lesser penalty for murdering the elderly, because they have less life left to enjoy? What about people with terminal diseases? Of course, you're unlikely to see such an extension of this reasoning by the Italian Supreme Court, because it seems pretty clear that, regardless of Italian standards of sentencing, this decision was informed by a deeply patriarchal mindset.

Nonetheless, I'd be interested to know if Italian courts in general put much stock in the extent of damage to the victim. If it is the case that their courts when sentencing attempt to determine exactly how much damage was caused to the victim (and do so through universal standards rather than a direct query) and proportion the punishment accordingly, the ruling isn't entirely off-base. It's still off-base in its assumption that non-virgins are hurt more by sexual assault than virgins, but it's not quite as off-base as some of the blogs have claimed.

More Food (Now with Action Cooking Shots!)


More shots of my dinner. I know some out there may be sick of pasta-based dishes, but I'm not. Tonight I made fettucini with a sort of tomato-based zucchini and mushroom sauce.

It's nothing too elaborate; I sliced up some zucchini and salted it, then sauteed it in olive oil. I started slicing the mushrooms after I put the zucchini in; this is important because mushrooms cook down quickly in comparison to zucchini. If you put everything in at once, you'll wind up with dried, shriveled-up mushrooms. Along similar line, I threw in a few cloves of minced garlic just before the mushrooms. While that was going, I put the sauce together, a can of tomato sauce, some olive oil, salt, a bit of basil, oregano, cayenne, and garlic powder (While I had them out, I dashed a little basil and oregano on the sauteeing vegetables, to give them a bit more flavor). I also put a pinch of sugar and a dash of cinnamon in the sauce.

Here we have the vegetables just before I put them in the sauce:


From there, after building up the heat to just under a boil, I left the sauce to simmer with the lid on. Here's the sauce:


Meanwhile, I had a big stock pot of water boiling, and I cooked the fettucini in the usual manner. The one slightly odd thing: After the pasta was done cooking and I had taken it out to drain, I took half a cup of the starchy pasta water and added it to the sauce. This replaces some of the moisture lost while simmering and also adds starch and flavor to the sauce.

From there, I put pasta on plate, put sauce on pasta, and served:


There you go. Dinner. And sauteeing the vegetables had the added bonus of overpowering the smell of cigars from my roommate's poker party last night. Counterbalancing bad smells with good smells is far preferable to my roommate's method of fumigation, opening all the windows in the middle of the night when it's 16 degrees outside. That was not a pleasant surprise when I opened my bedroom door this morning.

Ninja Scarf


Today, as the previous post stated, was quite cold. But I had to go to the Upper East Side to give blood. I left the apartment about 40 minutes before my appointment and took the subway over. I decided, as I was heading out, that it would be fun to walk all the way home from the blood donation center. This is the sort of decision that seems like a good idea until you find yourself faced with a four mile walk home after having lost a pint of blood. Nonetheless, I stuck to the plan.

Now, getting down there required very little exposure to the open air, so that was no problem. But as I started off homeways, I realized that there was no way I would even make it as far as Central Park, let alone all the way home, with my nose freezing off in the chill wind. Fortunately my scarf is made of thin black cotton, and can easily be wrapped around my face in order to form Ninja Scarf (seen here from the front ...


... and here from the side):


Granted, it's not super-fashionable. I looked quite goofy walking down the street and through the park with a scarf covering half of my face. I looked like a train robber, or perhaps one of those anarchist kids who shows up at protests to get violent and break windows.

Nonetheless, it kept my nose and face warm, and that's what counts. Also, people don't mess with you when you wear Ninja Scarf. Because, while the rest of your apparel and demeanor might not signal "Ninja," who wants to take the chance?


Yesterday's High Temperature: 65 F.
Today's High Temperature: 30 F.

I don't want to alarm anybody, but this is the kind of rapid temperature change that may cause Great Molasses Floods.

Curious Sanguine


I'm scheduled to give blood tomorrow, and I realized tonight that the last time I gave blood was before I started taking medication. I remembered a long list of medical questions you have to answer to give blood, and was worried that my current medication might prevent me from donating. So, rather than risk hauling myself all the way to the donor station on the Upper East Side only to find I was inelligible, I found the criteria for blood donors.

It looks like I'm fine; my medication doesn't show up on the warning list. But I'm curious about some of the other contra-indications. There's a 12 month ban on donations for getting a tattoo? No one who's spent more than 5 years total in Europe can give blood ever (that is, if you add up all the days of your life spent in Europe, and it's greater than 5 years, you can never give blood again)?

What's really disturbing to me is Question 37, the Ban on Gay Blood Donations. If you are a male and have ever had sex with a man, even if it's only once, since 1977, you're permanently banned from blood donation. If you're a woman and have sex with a man who has ever had sex with another man, you're banned for 12 months. Even if you get an HIV screening, your blood is still verboten.

Now, I understand the thinking that went into this, particularly given that it was likely implemented 20 years ago or more; obviously they don't want any AIDS or HIV positive blood in their blood supply, ever, and it's better to turn healthy blood away than to accept unhealthy blood. Still, though, it seems like you ought to be able to get an exemption if you have a recent screening.

What's more worrisome, though, is the exemption for Question 37. You're allowed to give blood if you are a male who was raped by a man, provided the incident was more than 12 months before the donation. This seems odd; one would think the sort of men who go around raping other men are the sort who would be more likely than average to be carrying HIV or AIDS.

I'm disturbed by the line of reasoning that's used to justify this, which I think goes like this: People who are gay are at a higher risk of carrying HIV/AIDS. This risk is high enough that it's worth excluding the entire class of people who are gay. How do we determine who is gay and who is not? Gay men have sex with men, and we want to have a strict criterion. So if you've ever had sex, even once, with a man, you are officially gay and therefore cannot give blood. However, this is imprecise; we want to exclude gay people, in the sense of people who live the promiscuous gay lifestyle which increases the likelihood of carrying HIV/AIDS. But some people, namely rape victims, have had sex with a man but are not adherants of the gay lifestyle. Therefore, we will give an exemption for men who have been raped by other men, because they are not truly gay.

So the criterion is "have you ever willfully had sex with another man?" But what they want to exclude isn't really gay people; it's promiscuous people. Gay is a cipher for promiscuous, but it's not universally applicable. There are many non-promiscuous gay people, just as there are many promiscuous straight people. Under their criteria, if you've had sex with a man, just once, against you're will, you're fine. If you had sex with a man, just once, willfully, you're banned for life. And, of course, there's the fact that they've gone through the trouble of creating a rape exemption but haven't bothered with something practical like a screening exemption.

Of course, this all assumes they're acting in good faith. There could be a heavy element of prejudice and stigmatization involved, which would help explain the rape exemption. Gay people can't give blood because they are, in some sense, bad: They willfully engage in a wrong act, sex with other men, so we don't want their blood. But rape victims really didn't have a choice in the matter. They committed a bad act, but it was against their will. So we excuse them and allow them to give blood after 12 months.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Criminal Law and am using a crime and punishment lens when it's inappropriate. Still, this question seems like it could use some refinement, if not a complete overhaul or removal.

The Unbearable Lightness of Blogging

Blogging has been light this week because all of the forces of Hell have converged to rob me of my leisure time and my sanity. On the plus side, this weekend's looking remarkably free. As is, coincidentally, my summer...

What's for Dinner on Valentine's Day


Long-grain Rice with Sauteed Mushrooms and Mixed Peppers


It's spicy. Like my love!

And it serves one. Also like my love, sadly.

And it's filled with mushrooms. Again, like my love.

Prep time: About 30 minutes. Which is in the ballpark of my love.

My Boring New Hobby

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Over the last couple of days, I've hit upon a new hobby! I mean, aside from writing 12 page briefs on the proper definition of the word "authorization" while on a 36-hour sleepless stimulant binge. This site lets you look up the geographic location of IP addresses. That is, whereas a standard WhoIs lookup tells you information about the ISP that owns a given IP address, this service actually lets you find out what general area is served by that specific range of IP addresses, so you can get a general idea of where the person with that IP address is located.

I mean, this isn't the most amazing thing ever, but it's neat. I can figure out where people who comment on my site live! ... Except I kind of already know where the people who comment on my site live. It'd be more fun if I could get the IP addresses of the folks who get here by random web searches; I could figure out the exact geographic distribution of all the people who keep coming here searching for carstuck videos.

As a consolation, though, I've figured out how to find the IP addresses of people who send you e-mail. You go into the e-mail header, and look for the lines that say "Received from:" followed by server names and IP addresses. Each time a new server gets an e-mail, it adds a line to the header giving the name and IP address of the computer it got the e-mail from. So if you go down to the last line, you get the IP of the sender. So now I can use that site to figure out where people who send me e-mails are sending them from! It's fun for the whole family! ... Except, again, I generally know where people who send me e-mails live. It's pretty much New York and Berkeley. Oh, I can use this to figure out where all those e-mails ostensibly from John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Jimmy Dean are actually coming from.

Speaking of, apparently washed up presidential candidates think I would like to know what exciting grass-roots political action they're mobilizing from their townhouses on the Potomac. If they're reading this, allow me to disabuse them of that notion right now.

So, I've found myself a new hobby for the next few days: Going through my old e-mails and seeing where people sent them from. Maybe I'll find something surprising. Or maybe I'll just waste a bunch of time. Still, it's more interesting than the definition of the word "Authorization."

Blizzard warning remains in effect until 4 PM this afternoon. Apparently a second snow belt built up over Central New Jersey and attacked New York City just as the first storm was moving on to Connecticut and Massachusetts. Lousy Jersey! Anyhow, the Weather Service now expects accumulation up to 30 inches by the time the snow's done. They're saying that this will likely be the biggest snowstorm in the history of New York City.

This winter has been quite unusual, apparently. We didn't get snow here until pretty late, and then it was a sudden storm that coated the city in 4-5 inches overnight. That slowly melted out, and we've had fairly warm weather since then, in the high-40s, low-50s, until this last week. Now we get the biggest snowstorm ever (for the city). And by Wednesday, the temperature's supposed to be back in the 50s again.

On the plus side, I'm spending the day inside, warm and toasty and working on my Moot Court brief. Plus now I can tell people about living through the Great Snowstorm of Aught-Six. I should make myself some hot chocolate...

Here are a couple of pictures. First, the view of the window from the living room...


And a view taken hanging out the kitchen window (which has no screen) getting a picture of the accumulation in one of the holes my apartment faces. I took it from outside the window because the various screens and reflective surfaces were screwing up photos taken from the inside of other windows.


UPDATE: More photos. Here's my street:


This is the view from the stoop of my apartment building. Note the large mounds of snow where cars once stood.


Looking northward on Amsterdam Avenue. Note, on the right, the small path cut through the snow by, I'm guessing, someone with a snow shovel; the city hasn't gotten people out to clear out the sidewalks there yet:


Our local community playground:


North on Broadway. Not a mobile car in sight:


South on Broadway. The buses continue to run, though. And a smattering of people trudge through the snow. Most of the people I saw outside seemed to be outside because they had no other option; there weren't a lot of people out enjoying the snow.


Having said that, I've just noticed the little snowman on the left side of that picture, just under the No Parking sign. So somebody's having a good time, at least. Now for that hot chocolate...

Rabbit Food


I present my dinner tonight, Curried Carrots and Parsnips Braised in Orange Juice. (Click image for curried glory)


It's a fairly easy dish; simply peel and chop about a pound of carrots and parsnips (I made a huge amount, so I actually used four pounds of mixed carrots and parsnips. The ingredient ratios, however, are adjusted for one pound). Place your chopped root vegetables in a sauce pan, and to it add a quarter cup of orange juice, a tablespoon of vegetable oil, a teaspoon of sugar, and a bit of salt and pepper. Turn the heat to high until the juice boils, then cover and turn the heat back down to the low side of medium. Allow it to cook for about five minutes. Remove the lid and turn the heat up a skosh. Now add a teaspoon ground ginger, a teaspoon ground coriander, a teaspoon cumin, a teaspoon cardomom, half a teaspoon cayenne, and a half teaspoon ground mustard (the spice, not the condiment). Stir until the spices are blended in. Keep an eye on it and stir periodically until the juice has evaporated and only the oil remains. Leave it on a bit longer, making sure the carrots and parsnips are tender (they should give no tangible resistance when you stick a fork in them). Turn off the heat, stir, and serve once cool enough to eat.

This dish is very flexible; if you only have carrots, use carrots. If you only have parsnips, use parsnips (though I find the mixture of the two works quite well). If you don't have all the spices, it's not a big deal. If you'd like, you might also throw in cinnamon, turmeric, or similar spices(I'd use a bit less than a teaspoon of cinnamon and somewhat more than a teaspoon of turmeric, if I were doing that). And of course you can adjust the spices to taste. I actually put in somewhat more Cayenne, but I think half a teaspoon is probably a reasonable amount; it adds spice without overwhelming the dish.

The dish tastes best when hot, but you can refrigerate it without too much loss in flavor. If you have tortillas handy, leftover curried carrots and parsnips make a fine filling for a burrito.

Here's a list of ingredients, but please don't avoid making the dish if you lack any of them.

A pound or so carrots, parsnips, or a mix
1/4 cup orange juice (you can use water if you like)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Turkish Benefits

I'm doing my taxes on-line, which is somewhat more complicated than usual because I have to file income taxes for the Federal Government, California, New York State, and New York City. New York City, aparently, requires residents to pay income tax for all income earned in a year in which they spent at least part as a resident of the city, regardless of where the income was earned. So, unless I'm mistaken, if you earn money for 364 days in California, then officially move to New York City on December 31, you have to pay taxes on all of your income for the year to California and then also pay taxes again on that same income to New York City. You also, I believe, have to pay New York City's income tax if you live somewhere else but earn money from working in New York City.

Anyhow, I'm paying taxes. First, a serious question: Is there anywhere I'm supposed to report money from student loans? That is, the big whack of cash I got last august that was immediately shunted into Columbia University's coffers. Do I report that? I ask because, under deductions, I reported all of my tuition expenses, but never reported getting money from loans, so it looks like I paid $20,000 in tuition out of nowhere, with almost no income and nothing removed from my bank account.

Second, an observation: In the Other Income heading for California State Taxes, one of the questions is whether I received Ottoman Turkish Empire settlement payments. What are these? I mean, I don't think I got any, but I wasn't aware that the Ottoman Turks were still around and paying out settlements.

Also, from the New York State form:
Investment Credit
Can you claim an investment credit for one of the following types of qualified property placed in service during 2005?
- Manufacturing and production
- Retail enterprise
- Waste treatment or pollution control
- Research and development
- Rehabilitation of an historic barn
- Qualified film production property"

New York State has an explicit investment credit for historic barn rehabilitation? Lumped in with the waste treatment facility credit?

Huh. Looks like I get free money from New York City; they're giving me $26 for a City of New York School Tax Credit, even though I owe them no taxes and they withheld none of my income. Weird. But I'm not turning it down.

Ah. A couple of cautionary notes to those using the TurboTax software to file their tax return: First, you can file your Federal taxes free, but only if you get to the TurboTax website through a link on the IRS site to free on-line tax preparers. Go to Google and search for Free Tax E-File, then go to the IRS's site. From there, follow the link to TurboTax. If you go to TurboTax's site directly, only pay services will be available.

Second, and more important, TurboTax makes it very easy to file your various state and local taxes. These services are profoundly not free, something you won't dicover until the very end. Only Federal filing is free. If you provide them with information for any state tax returns, whether you decide to file them or not, they will charge you a $50 preparation fee. What's more, they will offer you a choice of either paying their fee with a credit card or simply having it deducted automatically from your return. Unless you don't have a credit card, or are afraid of using your card on-line, you should pay with a card. For the convenience of deducting the preparation fee from your return check, rather than charging your credit card, TurboTax charges a $30 Direct Deposit Fee.

You can file state income taxes free on your state tax administration's website. Filing state taxes with TurboTax made no sense for me; I'd be paying $80 in fees for a $60 refund.


There's a Blizzard Warning in effect from 7 PM tonight until 4 AM tomorrow. The temperature's 36 right now, expected to drop to 24 overnight. Heavy snow is predicted, along with 25-50 mile per hour winds. Snow is expected to continue through the day tomorrow, with accumulation of around 12 inches (more in some areas) when it's finished. The National Weather Service is recommending that everyone check the supplies in their Snowstorm Survival Kit, to do what's necessary to pack in during the day today, and to stay indoors until the storm blows over.

Also, last night for the first time I felt really, deeply homesick for Berkeley. I miss long walks in sunny, temperate weather and the peculiarly ecclective flora of the East Bay (eucalyptus trees and palm fronds). I find it a lot harder to take a relaxed stroll in New York, because there are always so many people out on the street rushing around. You can't just walk for walking's sake; you need a purpose and a direction. And it doesn't help that the weather's been cold enough lately that you either need to bundle up in three layers of insulative clothing or make only quick 5 minute trips outside before darting back into heated buildings to raise your core temperature.

I can't help but wonder if these two events are related.



Since I moved into this apartment, I've put up with what I feel to be a sub-standard stove. I'm not 100% sure, though, so I'd like to get the opinions of other renters out there.

This is a gas stove. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, after years of using an electric in Berkeley I'm finding that I quite like the instant heat control that gas affords. What's wrong with it, though, is the heat control.

As I understand it, this is how gas stove heat control works: It starts at Off, meaning no gas is flowing. As you turn it, the vents very rapidly open to allow full-strength gas flow just as the knob hits "Light." While the knob's on "Light," the electronic sparker (This gas stove has an electronic ignition) does its sparky thing. You hold the knob there until the gas ignites, then keep turning the knob. The next setting is High, and from there as you continue the move the knob it gradually constricts the vents, decreasing gas down to the lowest simmer setting, where the knob stops. At simmer, there's enough gas flowing to keep the burner ignited, but just barely so you get a minimal flame.

My stove is just like that, except for all the stuff after the word "High." It goes to High, and that's it. You can't turn it further. Technically, when you use my stove, you have two heat choices: Full Blast, and Off. This seemed quite curious to me, so I looked up my stove's manufacturer on-line. It's out of business. And has been for 15 years. Nonetheless, from looking around I've found a few references to stoves like this. According to the manufacturers, the inability to set the heat to anything but high is a safety feature; when you set it lower, it increases the chance of the flame going out, thereby flooding your house with gas and causing your premature demise. You don't want that, do you?

This, clearly, is bullshit.

For one, my parents have a gas stove at home. It works in the way I described above. They had a gas stove before that. It also worked in the way described above.

The manufacturers recommend you learn to shift your pots and pans back and forth. Since you can't get a low flame, if you need to simmer something you just put it on a high flame for thirty seconds, leave it off for a minute or so, then put it back on, and so on. By learning to rapidly shift pots and pans around, you can work miracles with your piece of shit stove!

Obviously, this is unsatisfactory.

So I called the building manager. She sent her assistant, the fast-talking lady who first gave me my keys and showed me the apartment. I tried to explain the problem.

"There's no problem with this stove. Look, you turn it, it turns on!"

"But I can't keep turning it. It only gives high heat."

"Oh. Well, look, like this, you can turn it backwards, see! Past light!"

"You mean between light and off?"

"Sure! Perfect flame control."

"...But normal stoves, with normal heat control, have slow valve controls so you can get precise heat control."

"So? You don't need that!"

"... And they stop it so you can't accidentally lose the flame, but still have gas running. Setting it between Light and Off seems like a great way to flood the apartment with gas."

"Nah! You just gotta be careful!"

"I still don't think this is right."

"Well, this is how all gas stoves work!"

"No, every other gas stove I've seen has worked the way I described."

"Well, those must have all been, like, fancy expensive restaurant stoves!"

"No. They weren't."

"Look, there's nothing wrong, and you're not getting a new stove. You gonna sign my work order saying the problem's solved?"

"But it isn't!"

"And it's never gonna get solved, but I can't leave 'till you sign the order."

"... Fine."

So anyhow, I think she's wrong. But I could be wrong; maybe most gas stoves do work this way and I'm making a big deal about nothing. But if I'm overcome by cooking gas, or die in a giant oven explosion, I'm going to haunt the living fuck out of that lady.

To give you a clearer idea: Here's a video of me operating the stove. Enjoy!Download Stove.avi

Why I Don't Post About Constitutional Law

I don't post much about Con. Law. When I have, it's been in the context of discussions in Criminal Law, Property, or Law and Philosophy. Yet Constitutional Law tends to be the most high-profile law out there. It's the only type of law most people cares about outside the low-level criminal law that you get from crime dramas and lawyer shows. What gives?

What gives is that Constitutional Law, as a subject, is divided into two big topic areas. The one everyone's familiar with, and cares about, is Personal Rights Constitutional Law. This is Free Speech, Free Religion, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, that sort of thing. The other half, which is the half we're deeply engrossed in now, is Federalism and Separation of Powers. This is constitutional law based on how the Constitution structures the government, which branches are allowed to do what, and what the Federal government can and can't do. At its best and most interesting, this is political science.

But 90% of Federalism and Separation of Powers law isn't at its best and most interesting, because it's all something of a sham. There used to be legitimate arguments that the Supreme Court arbitrated over what the proper relationship between the Federal Government and the States was. The Civil War changed that. Since then, the courts have steadily granted more and more powers to the Federal government, and Federalism is now, for the most part, a fig leaf.

A lot of these decisions come down to the following argument: "The Feds can't do Activity Y. But they can do entirely unrelated Activity X. So this law you just passed doing Y is unconstitutional, and very naughty of you. If, however, you wrote a new bill, that gave you the power to do Activity X and Activity Y, provided you explain somewhere in the bill why Activity Y in some vague, tangential way might help you to do Activity X, that would be 100% constitutional." This also leads to arguments that the Constitution prohibits the Federal Government from making some small imposition on state governments, but is okay with doing that same small imposition if it's one aspect of a huge imposition on state governments.

In short, the Supreme Court no longer cares at all about the substantive question of who has what powers. They have given the Federal Government unlimited powers, but require them to meet certain procedures (Dot the Is, cross the Ts, spin around three times and pat their head) in order to show proper respect to the Ghost of Federalism Past.

Further, all of these decisions contain enormous amounts of bloviation about what the Founding Fathers would have wanted. It's important to understand that Alexander Hamilton thought it vital that congress can only ban guns from school zones if the gun at some point travelled between states. This is, of course, nonsense, but that doesn't stop the Justices from fretting for five pages asking What Would James Madison Do, even though they eventually reach a result that is nothing like what he would do, and even though the context of our society and our government is so vastly different that it's impossible to tell what Hypothetical Twenty-First Century James Madison would think.

I was inspired to post this when, while reading Con. Law this morning, I found the platonic ideal summary of a Constitutional Law opinion, in a description of the case of Printz v. US (Deciding whether Congress could require state law enforcement officials to perform background checks on gun owners):

"Justice Souter's separate dissent focused on his interpretation of several passages in The Federalist Papers."

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

David Schizer, Dean of Columbia Law School, just committed an emotional tort against me. I predict years of pain and suffering, for which I demand compensation.

I am, as you may know, doing Moot Court this semester. Minutes ago, I received the following terse e-mail from the Dean (judges omitted for maximum dramatic value):

"Please note that this year's Moot Court final arguments have been scheduled
for Monday, April 10. We are very pleased to have the following
distinguished judges on the panel:


The competition will take place in JGH 104 from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. A
reception will immediately follow in Drapkin Lounge.

David Schizer"

I just turned in my Moot Court brief today. It's a matter of statutory interpretation that asks the judge to depart from the plain meaning of a statute (though not necessarily in an unreasonable way; I ask them to use a plausible reading, if not the most natural one). My argument comes largely from policy, custom, and legislative intent. We've been waiting for an announcement on when we'll be doing oral arguments, so it's not unreasonable to think this e-mail's about us. Odd to get this from the Dean, but whatever.

And here are the honorable judges who will be presiding over the moot court arguments, according to Dean Schizer:

Judge Edith B. Clement, a George W. Bush appointee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana.

Judge Pierre N. Leval, a Clinton appointee to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City

Justice Antonin Scalia, of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As you might imagine, my heart stopped. My first ever oral argument before the meanest and toughest questioner on the Supreme Court, arguing a case in which I'm arguing for everything he's against.

Needless to say, Dean Schizer's e-mail excluded vital information (as his e-mails tend to). This the final argument for the optional upper-division Honors Moot Court program, which makes sense.

Nonetheless, that won't stop me from having years of nightmares about being a first year law student making an oral argument that I haven't prepared arguing for a policy-based departure from a statute's text before Antonin Scalia. In my underwear.

Wow! A Sports Entry! (sort of)


Congratulations, Steelers, on your Super Bowl win! And congratulations to Steelers fans, of whom I know this site has a few among its readers! I don't follow much professional football, but of all the teams out there, the Steelers are the only ones about whom I could call myself a well-wisher (moreso than the Chargers). They seem like one of the few teams with an ownership that genuinely cares about the city they're in, and they have the patience to pick a coach and stick with him through good times and bad.

Sadly, I missed most of the Super Bowl today because I was working on my moot court brief. Still, I caught the final 30 seconds or so. How was the game? Exciting? It seemed like the Steelers were pretty much ahead throughout.

A few folks out there have mentioned the possibility of moving to New York City, for the glamour, the youth scene, to find a job, or whatever. I would strongly advise you to think carefully before doing so. When I decided to move to New York I was in a situation where I would be taking out an incredible amount of student loans no matter where I went, and New York was only marginally more expensive than elsewhere. Moreover, Columbia has an office of institutional real estate that handled my housing for me. So I had finances taken care of (to the degree that taking out tons of loans is handling finances) as well as housing.

Along those lines, I direct you to this article in the New York Times about a group of architecture students who built a rig in their transom and stuffed a mattress in it while drunk. As a joke, they posted an ad on Craig's List offering to rent the right to sleep on the mattress for $35 a month. They got a dozen responses, and at least half of them were serious about it and wanted to go through with it after finding out what the set up was.

There's more anecdotal evidence in that story about people putting up curtains to create new bedrooms to rent, people sleeping in tents, on couches, in corners, etc. New York is a tough market to find housing in, and if you do find a place it'll be expensive. Moreover, if you're not coming in with a job already lined up don't even think about finding a place in Manhattan. Most apartments here require you to be able to show proof of income before they'll let you sign a lease. They want to know how much you make, to ensure that you can reasonably pay the rent every month. Moreover, a lot will want to see your bank statements; they want to make sure you have enough money stockpiled that, if you get fired, you can pay the rent for a few months while they find someone to replace you. To find a place on Manhattan you'll also need a broker. Most buildings won't talk to lone renters; they'll only offer places indirectly through brokers. The brokers, in exchange, will charge you a fee equal to 1-3 months rent on the place you get. So you can only get a place through the broker, and the broker has a vested interest in getting you into the most expensive apartment possible.

And there a dozen other things you might not like or be prepared for in New York City. I don't want to scare people off or anything, but I do think it's important to have a realistic idea of what you're getting into when you move here. Housing is hard to find, the city's expensive, and, while the jobs tend to pay somewhat more proportionately than the same jobs in other cities, they don't pay enough more to make up for how expensive it is. If you're going to move to New York, have a lot of money saved up, be prepared to live someplace cheap and squalid while you find a job and get into a secure financial position, and then get ready to go through a nasty hunt for a more permanent apartment.

Queers and Liberals


Discussion in comments below reminded me of an interesting and unfortunate phenomenon that I've encountered in studying 20th century American history and politics. It's a tendency you notice in people who are largely on the tolerant side of social politics, and is quite prominent in the field of gay rights. You encounter comedians, politicians, celebrities, and others in the 50s and 60s who are all for civil rights, women's liberation, equality for all, etc. but who see nothing wrong with throwing in an off-color joke about gay people, or who treat discrimination on the basis of sexual preferance as a goofy issue of no real concern.

My favorite example of this is the Supreme Court case of Bowers v. Hardwick. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy laws, which explicitly banned male-on-male oral and anal sex, but had nothing to say about heterosexual sex. The case went to the court, and the justices ruled the Georgia statute constitutional in a 5-4 split.

What's interesting is that among the majority, along with the traditionally conservative justices, was Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger, who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade and was the primary mover in getting all the justices to agree to a right to abortion, wrote a separate concurring opinion that stated, in essence, "There's no possible way anyone could construe a right to sodomy in the constitution. It's plainly and fragrantly un-biblical, and it would be grossly immoral for us to prohibit states from banning such a thing."

Also interesting is Justice Blackmun. Blackmun wrote the dissent in Hardwick, but was on the opposite side of a prior case attacking a state sodomy law. Blackmun had always been a liberal justice, and his decision to side with the anti-sodomy part of the court was a bit unusual. The reason for it, as he later explained, was that he simply didn't know there were all that many queers out there. He thought, in writing the decision, that there were a few hundred, perhaps a thousand deviants who enjoyed sexual relations with members of the same sex. After siding with the majority in the earlier case, he got scads of letters on the subject, did some research, and discovered that, by gosh!, there actually ARE a lot of queers out there! And our society treats them pretty unfairly! He switched sides and from that point became one of the most pro-gay rights justices on the Court.

The larger point is that you also find a lot of generally liberal people who, in retrospect, were surprisingly conservative on other liberal issues that weren't of much concern yet. Union organizers who think a woman's place is in the home. Suffragists who don't mind Jim Crow laws. Civil Rights leaders who hate gay people.

Part of this is a form of historian's bias. There are two types of historian's bias, as I see it. The kind here is the temptation to use present values to judge people in the past. Washington owned slaves, so he was evil, that sort of thing. It's a bit unfair to those figures, because they existed in a time with different social norms than ours and it's unreasonable to expect them to derive for themselves modern schemes of values. At the same time, I think it is safe to assert that these people did hold inconsistent views even with respect to their own values, and that they were blinded to this inconsistency. We can excuse them for their views, but we need not declare their views justified.

(The other type of historian's bias works in the opposite direction: It declares that things used to be so much better than they are now, and uses nostalgia for these simpler times to attack the way things are now. But that's an entirely separate subject)

In saying all this, I realize that it's quite possible (perhaps even likely) that I hold knee-jerk conservative positions that will mark me as an intolerant neanderthal to future generations. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see people who dedicated their lives to advancing the cause of underserved and unequal communities jokingly dismiss other such communities. I think it shows the importance of periodically re-examine your beliefs to make sure you haven't slipped into laziness or stereotyping.


I finally got around to some housekeeping with respect to the links on the sideboard. For starters, I finally fixed Helen's URL. I've also changed the Sites I Read Daily to reflect the sites I actually read daily. I've taken off a bunch that I don't find myself reading much anymore (not that they're bad, but I just don't find myself as interested in them lately). Most prominently, I've added four at the top, Pandagon, Echidne of the Snakes, Shakespeare's Sister, and Feministe. They're all very well done feminism-oriented blogs. They're the major impetus for this housekeeping; for the last few months I've spent the majority of my internet time reading those sites, and it seemed odd not to have a link to them.

So, read! Enjoy!

Amateur Psychology


I have a question: Why do we call people who hate homosexuals "homophobes?"

The word, taken literally, implies "Irrationally afraid of homosexuals." The idea, I suppose, is that hatred of homosexuals stems from a deeply-rooted fear of homosexuality; perhaps the homophobe is afraid of being raped, or perhaps he's afraid that he is, himself, a homosexual. This seems a plausible explanation for some homophobes, but I'm not certain it describes all of them. Some people just plain hate homosexuals for no good reason, just like some people hate black people for no good reason. But we don't call people who hate black people negrophobes; we call them racists.

The term seems a bit patronizing, and implies a sort of amateur psychology. Without knowing anything about somebody other than their hatred of homosexuals, we've diagnosed them and explained the deeply-rooted cause of their problems. This is like declaring that everyone who's shy had trouble with bed-wetting as a child.

Having said that, of course, when we use the term homophobe who are we patronizing? People who hate homosexuals that don't hate them out of fear; they just hate them for being homosexual. Not necessarily a group that inspires much sympathy.

But that leads me to the other problem I have with the homophobe label: It doesn't imply any moral judgment, and instead has the character of a clinical diagnosis. When you call somebody a racist, you're not saying they have a psychological problem that can be cured with professional treatment. You're saying that they hold immoral beliefs and need to get over them. Now, I won't claim that there's no judgment implied in the word homophobe when used today, but it seems like the negative moral implications have been added as a social phenomenon, and aren't really inherent in the term itself.

So I'd argue that the term Homophobe is unfair to the genuine hater of homosexuals, insofar as it denies their agency by claiming that their views are merely the product of neurochemical imbalance or past traumas, and is simultaneously too fair to them, insofar as it implies that their views are a regrettable but inevitable product of forces beyond their control. What's needed is a term that recognizes and respects hatred of homosexuals as a conscious choice, while simultaneously condemning it as immoral. What that term might be, I can't say.

I'm working on (yet another) cover letter, and would like advice on a phrasing. Which sounds better:

"...I would love to have the chance to develop my abilities further..."


"...I would love to have the chance to further develop my abilities..."


I've sort of idly toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo, but have been restrained by my inability to think of something meaningful to have emblazoned permanently on my body. I think that holding back has, on balance, been a good thing, because by doing so I've collected more information about the art of tattoos, as well as the practical concerns of getting them. Therefore, if I should decide to get one eventually, I think the chances of disappointment are at least somewhat smaller.

So, today's lesson on tattoos: Do not get a tatto from a door-to-door tattoo salesman using a poorly-constructed home-made gun. Apparently several people in Springfield, Missouri got tattoos from someone going door-to-door in their apartment complex. The gun used was held together with pins, black tape, and fishing wire. The women got tattoos anyway. The next day one of the women passed out and all of the women have gotten infections. They're being advised to get tested for hepatitis and HIV. Apparently the state department of health could go after the tattoo salesman (I hesitate to call him a tattoo artist) if enough people file complaints against him.

The knee-jerk reaction I had was to blame the victims, which is unfortunate. Yes, they clearly behaved stupidly. Even if you have no knowledge of the tattoo business and don't, for instance, know that they are not typically sold door-to-door, it seems like you ought to have the sense not to let someone puncture you with a rickety home-made gun. Still, though, I can see how it would happen, from their perspective. They know what a tattoo is, of course, and have sort of thought they might like one, but not enough to pursue it. A fellow comes to their door with, I'm guessing, a good sales pitch, undoubtedly offering a cheap rate. It's too expensive for them to get a real tattoo, or perhaps they hadn't thought about it seriously enough to look into it, but they end up deciding to get one on an impulse. It's the same reason you don't put candybars on your list when you go to the supermarket, but since they happen to be there when you're checking out, you may as well buy one for the trip home.

Assuming the facts are as related, nobody should be blamed but the salesman. He's preying on the ignorant in a way that has potentially devastating health consequences. It's pretty easy to blame the victims when stupid actions on their parts lead to injury. But there's a world of difference when some malefactor is the agent of the harm. The injurer is acting in bad faith to exploit others, and it doesn't matter if her victims behaved stupidly in falling for the scheme; the injurer still deserves every shred of the blame for the harms caused by her actions.

My Sexless Brain


Sort-of kind-of via Lindsey (insofar as she first pointed me to the man behind this research, though she didn't point out this specific article or anything), The Guardian has a test that ostensibly determines whether you have a male brain or a female brain. Simon Baron-Cohen is a cognitive science researcher in England who has dedicated a large part of his career to trying to prove that there are innate biological differences between the brain of the human male and the brain of the human female. Some of the details of his work can be found here, in an article he wrote for The Guardian.

The crux of his theory is that you can rate people's patterns of thinking along two axes: The propensity for empathizing, and the propensity for systemizing. His theory is that, on average, women tend to be better than men at empathizing, and worse than men at systemizing. He has developed two tests (which you can take at the link above). One determines your Empathizing Quotient on a scale of 8 to 78, the other determines your Systemizing Quotient on a scale of -4 to 60 (I don't quite understand why the scales are the way they are). After extensive testing, he determined that the average EQ score for women was 47 and for men was 42. For the SQ, the female average was 24 and the male average was 30. Based on this evidence, he argues that there are two basic brain types: The female brain (good at empathizing, bad at systemizing) and the male brain (good at systemizing, bad at empathizing). There are also balanced brains (equally good at empathizing and systemizing), extreme male brains (extraordinary systemizers devoid of empathy), and extreme female brains (astoundingly emotional, but completely incapable of systemizing).

It is important to point out that he's not saying that all men have male brains and all women have female brains. His unfortunate decision to label the two brain types "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain" creates the impression that sex is far more determinative a factor than it seems to be; real people score all over the map, but if you take the average you find a slight difference on average. As an editorial aside, it seems as though he really, really wanted to find a difference between men and women going into the experiment, and when he got results that backed up his hypothesis he rolled out his pre-planned labels, which somewhat oversell the differences he actually discovered. If you take the tests, you will find that the 5-6 point difference is quite small. Amazingly small, in fact, considering the content of the test, which I will get to later.

The first major problem with the tests used here, which Baron-Cohen acknowledges but doesn't really address, is the problem of the poisoned sample. We know that using certain areas of your brain, particularly early in life, causes greater development of synapses in that area. Similarly, when you don't use areas of the brain, that area becomes underdeveloped. So it's very easy to reconcile the statement "The brains of male and female 20 year olds are different," with the statement "There is no inherent biological difference between male and female brains." If society pressures girls to care about emotions, girls will use the emotional parts of their brains more and will become women who are better empathizers. Likewise, if society pressures boys to systemize, boys will use those parts of their brain more and become men who are better systemizers. Baron-Cohen is working with a poisoned sample, so it's hard to take his conclusions too seriously.

The other big problem is that the tests themselves are pretty poorly made. The Empathy test is more a test of shyness. If you don't enjoy talking to people, you get a very low empathy score (I got 28, which, according to Baron-Cohen, is a hair above autistic). The Systemizer test is much worse; it's a test of whether you like Guy Things. I would argue that I'm a pretty systematic thinker. I love board games, I love rules. That's why I'm in law school. I scored a 17, which is very low. The reason is that the test asks a bunch of questions like "Are you good at do-it-yourself projects?" "Do you feel confident that you could fix a problem with your house's electrical system?" "If you were buying a car, would you like to know the precise engine capacity?" "Do you enjoy keeping track of sports statistics?" etc. Well, no to all of them, but that's because 1. I'm not handy, 2. I don't much care about electrical wiring, 3. I don't drive, and don't even know what an engine capacity is, and 4. I don't follow sports. I suppose he's using Liking Traditionally Male Hobbies as a proxy for Systematic Thinking, but that's the very definition of circular. "I think Men like to systemize. Therefore, hobbies men like should be systematic. Therefore, my test will determine how much you like traditionally male hobbies. My test found that men like traditionally male hobbies more than women do. Traditionally male hobbies are systematic, so men are more systematic thinkers than women are. QED."

I feel I should point out that Baron-Cohen has used this Empathizer-Systemizer paradigm as the basis for somewhat more credible research. It's detailed further down in this article. He's done some work with very young babies, 12-month-olds and newborns, who demonstrate differences in their patterns of attention based on their gender. I haven't investigated this research too much, but it seems to present more plausible evidence for his case than the other test.

Baron-Cohen does acknowledge the impact of society on sex roles, but he dismisses these arguments against his work with a hand-wave. He is merely trying to show that some biological differences exist, he argues, and he makes no claim as to how much biology accounts for perceived sex differences. Therefore: He accepts all claims of culture-derived sex differences. He'd be willing to acknowledge that 99.999% of sex differences come from culture. He's merely trying to show that some small amount, perhaps .001%, comes from biology.

I feel he makes this defense in bad faith. He writes popular books aimed at non-expert audiences trying to explain that sex differences are based in biology. He writes articles that start with discussions of all the differences in sex roles today, then segues into why biology accounts for sex differences. To a broad audience he implies that biology is the reason men and women behave differently. Then, when confronted by an expert, he concedes and backs off. "I didn't REALLY say that, you didn't parse my language closely enough. If you look carefully, I never said that biology was the only thing." Then he goes back to writing books for non-experts about the biological roots of sex differences.

Some of you may have noticed that I've been using the word "sex" to describe behavioral differences that are generally referred to by the term "gender." This use was intentional. Baron-Cohen is rather disdainful of the use of the term gender. He feels it's being used in place of the word "sex" when it shouldn't be. The segment of that article on the term gender is illustrative of what's maddening about Baron-Cohen: he treats the concept of malleable gender as worthy of disdain. He mocks it as a uniquely American rags-to-riches I-can-be-whatever-I-want-to-be thing. He thus implies that gender is pre-determined, set in stone at birth (probably by biology). But he never actually says it.

This, I think, is what annoys me about Baron-Cohen. He espouses beliefs he knows to be somewhat controversial in the field. Perhaps they're right, and perhaps not. But he has become an expert at making seemingly-strong claims about his findings in public that are delicately phrased such that, when confronted, he can weasel out of them, then afterwards go back to making further disingenuously strong claims to the public. If you're going to make yourself a public figure based on your controversial views, have the (you'll excuse the gendered term) balls to make your argument and fight for it.

Having said all this, I'd be interested in how my readers come out on Baron-Cohen's exes. I, apparently, have a Balanced Brain, because I am emotionally bankrupt and utterly un-systematic in my thinking. What're all your results?

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