Monthly Archives: May 2004

And now for something completely different.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has inspired many people, including Monty Python, who were moved to re-release Life of Brian as a kind of antidote. It opens in Berkeley today.
Concidentally, it was brought to my attention today (via Atrios) that Eric Idle has written a new song (click on “Download Here”) about the FCC and certain other government agencies. I bet you they won’t play this song on the radio, either.
(Eric Idle is, of course, a member of Monty Python, and the writer and lead singer of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.)

West Contra Costa special election endorsements

Yes and yes.
[Two ballot measures, both property tax hikes; one is to prevent the local hospital from closing and the other to fund the disastrously underfunded school district, which has had to end sports programs and close libraries.]
I suspect the school measure is doomed to failure like its predecessor on March 3; if they had managed to attach it as a rider to the hospital measure on the other hand…

Look to your left.

A while back I noticed my blogroll didn’t match up very well to my collection of RSS feeds, but I had been putting off sidebar adjustments until I could figure out how to classify some of the new additions. Eventually I gave up, decided some blogs defy categorization, and lumped all the blogs into one section. Most but not all are political in nature, but they’re all recommended.
I took the opportunity to perform some other sidebar renovations:
“Connections” are links to (a) websites of people I know personally (but blogs go in the blog section) or (b) websites of groups of which I am a member.
The “lore” section should help with my more obscure references, and I figured if I’m going to have lore I should also have data.
The Media Room is not intended to be a list of endorsements (except of course for the shameless plug!), but rather a sampling of my recent media intake.
The sidebar is longer as a result, so I will have to post more often to make sure it doesn’t outrun the blog like it’s doing now. (Or I could just have older entries show up on the main page.)

Ye Shall Be As Gods

Slate investigates the possibility that the universe was created by a physicist.

“What my theoretical argument shows?and Alan Guth and others who have looked at this matter have come to the same conclusion?is that we can’t rule out the possibility that our own universe was created in a lab by someone in another universe who just felt like doing it.”

This illustrates a valuable lesson: just because someone can create a universe does not mean he is worthy of being worshipped. I also found this line amusing:

More orthodox believers, on the other hand, will seek refuge in the question, “But who created the physicist hacker?”

I’m not sure they’ll find much refuge there — not when a similar question can be posed for the more orthodox beliefs…

Bay to Breakers

I ran in San Francisco’s famous Bay to Breakers race yesterday. The Examiner has some coverage that conveys a bit of the flavor of the race, although they do have an interest in promoting it. Assorted thoughts:

  • A disadvantage of being tall is that one’s head is a prime target for airborne tortillas.

  • The tiki hut was indeed quite impressive.
  • The East Bay hills were excellent training for Hayes St. That hill wasn’t bad at all.
  • Stopping to use the bathroom at mile 4 must have added at least 15 minutes to my time (the line was that long). Next year, less water beforehand.
  • On the other hand, running with the rest of the Kerry group prevented me from running for time, so it’s not a big deal.
  • The utility of associating with the Kerry group in fact exceeded any utility I might gain from finishing earlier, so I made the rational choice in this regard. This event further confirmed my hypothesis about the non-political value of involvement in the campaign.
  • Angel: The quiet, reserved thing — don’t you think that makes me kind of, I don’t know, cool?
    Cordelia: [indicating Wesley] He was cooler.

  • Another note for next year: wake up a little earlier so I have time to put on sunscreen.

Dusting off the keyboard

Where have I been lately? As it happens, any single one of Ninja Gaiden, Angel on DVD, or Quicksilver is addictive, but the three in combination is highly dangerous. It’s a wonder I’ve been making it to lab at all. On the other hand, I dreamed last night that I was debating Abu Ghraib with several people who read this page (though the debate was in person), which I take as a clear sign that I need to return to blogging.
Anyway, last week’s quote was from The Big Lebowski; I’m rating this week’s Moderate (2 points) though it may be more like 1.5.

The meritocratic margin of error

The Caltech discussion board on orkut has a thread running on affirmative action. I’m crossposting here the argument I made in favor of “affirmative action within the margin of error”. Feel free to punch holes in it so that I can refine the argument (or discard it if it’s just flat-out wrong). (I think in a strict sense I am misusing the term “meritocratic” which is supposed to refer to government.)

Some [participants in the orkut discussion] seem to be arguing for a totally meritocratic admissions process. One could imagine a process in which the admissions committee distills each application into some single metric of qualification, something like a “predicted GPA”. Then they could just take the top N applicants.
This hypothetical process has its appeal, but the obvious practical problem is the uncertainty associated with any particular metric that might be chosen. Since the college application provides very incomplete information about the applicant, this uncertainty will be rather large.
The University of California found that a linear combination of high school GPA and SAT II scores was the best predictor of freshman GPA, but it’s still not very good, explaining only 20% of the variance. The College Board’s own data (pdf) shows a .69 correlation for their metric (a combination of SAT I and HS GPA) in the category relevant to Tech. The point is that there is information about a student’s qualifications which is not in the application, and this leads to substantial uncertainty in any ranking by admissions.
Which raises the issue of tie-breakers. A “tie”, after all, isn’t a pair of identical applications, but two students who both appear to be qualified within the margin of error. The margin of error being rather large, a certain number of ties are certain to occur in any admissions cycle, and admissions has to choose some non-meritocratic way of resolving them. I don’t have a problem with their choosing affirmative action as this method.

To add a bit (based on feedback I got in the original discussion), actual colleges obviously do use a lot of information in the application apart from the SAT/GPA numbers. My sense is that the additional data doesn’t add much to the determination of which applicants are qualified to attend the school, but are useful to admissions in other ways. I didn’t address these things because the concern of the affirmative action opponents seemed to be that applicants were being held to different standards based on gender or ethnicity, and I’m pretty sure they mean things like SAT scores and not community service.

Van Helsing

Buffy: A guy like you should think about going electric. Seriously.

Dracula took that advice a little too far in this movie.
It had its moments, but didn’t meet my standard for Dracula movies, which is that they should be at least as good as “Buffy vs. Dracula”. Admittedly this is not a low bar. Anyway, Van Helsing: action scenes were competent but not exceptional, and I never got the sense that the characters were in any actual danger; dialogue was typically pretty lame, but who really cares about dialogue in this sort of movie; Van Helsing’s sidekick was pretty amusing and his secret society at the Vatican was intriguing, wish there was a bit more about it (maybe in the sequel); Kate Beckinsale is hot (time to go rent Underworld, I think). That’s pretty much it.