Archive for October, 2007

Pushing My Buttons

October 30, 2007

I’m not normally into Fisking, but this column in Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times has my blood boiling. A commentator described the column as fatuous, but it’s also quite representative of the kind of sloppy thinking I saw throughout my college experience.

Everything is being corporatized, which is reducing our freedom as individuals in today’s world.

“Corporatized?” This is a standard liberal bugaboo. From what I can gather, it’s some mystical sound that magically makes anything it is pronounced upon tainted and odious. And Mr. Stone is particularly effective here in casting it across “everything.” All freedom-loving people—nay, all freedom-loving “individuals”—should not be on alert.

The most recent example of this phenomenon was announced last Wednesday by the College of Business, which has received a $1 million gift from BB&T. The gift (better viewed as an investment by BB&T) will be given in $100,000 installments over the next ten years.

The wooziness continues. “The most recent example” of corporatization was nearly a week ago? Really? And this corporatization is represented by a gift to a university—a corporation—segment by a bank—another corporation? Is the writer really this naive? Oh wait, he’s a college student with five pomo courses courses under his belt. So that’s a silly question.

In return for the investment, the bank will be allowed to give high-profile public lectures in the Holtzman Alumni Center and to create a new undergraduate and graduate course where BB&T is allowed extensive freedom to choose the curriculum and syllabus. The course being offered is about “freedom” and its relation to the “market.”

Oh the horrors! The corporatization is even more insidious than we could have imagined. Not only is BB&T ponying up $1 million over ten years, they’re giving public lectures (no, “high-profile” public lectures) that no one has to go to and offering courses (low-profile?) that no one has to take. He sure wasn’t kidding about this attack on our freedom. In a supreme twist of irony, the very abuser of our freedom is making this course about “freedom!” And the “market,” which from the scare quotes is obviously a lie or fabrication or imaginary. The writer’s never heard of such a thing—and probably never will since he appears to be an aspiring academic.

During the hour-long lecture last Wednesday given by John Allison, the CEO and chairman of BB&T, the ideological agenda the bank wishes to promote was very apparent. The lecture was nothing more than a very boring and dry discussion that failed to go outside the most basic and elementary talking points for Objectivism, a radical free-market philosophy created by Ayn Rand. Free copies of Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged” where given to every student in attendance.

Oh, the turgidity! After an “hour-long lecture” Allison’s views were “very apparent.” And you know his “very boring and dry discussion” is just going to attract college students in droves so they can be reprogrammed to be good little corporatizers. And you know they will because they “where” given a 1,200 page book that’s not required reading. He’s got them now!

According to Allison, the purpose of the gift to the university is to counter the bias that is already present in academia across the country. According to supporters of the corporate partnership, the class, which plans on discussing “the moral principles underlying free markets,” is fair and balanced because it teaches both Marxism and free markets by comparing and contrasting the two systems. The other free book given during Allison’s lecture was “The New Industrial State” by John Kenneth Galbraith.

The class, which presumably has already achieved sentience and is going to be one of the primary warriors in this battle against our freedom from being able to attend lectures at Virginia Tech, intends to cover this “market” nonsense by comparing it to Marxism. Oh, and the writer forgot to mention earlier that he also gave out another book. He can’t forget that fact, so now’s as good a time as any to throw that out there.

Such an argument, though, is based upon a false dichotomy and stems from a lack of reasoning. The question of bias in academia is not a “liberal” or “conservative” issue, nor is it a question of Marxism versus Capitalism. These are false dichotomies (especially in regards to a question of morality and capitalism) because there are many (if not infinite) different ideological frameworks that do not fall into either of those two categories.

Isn’t “dichotomy” a fun word to use over and over? This argument, presumably the one about <cite>The New Industrial State</cite> being the “other free book” handed out by Allison, suffers “a lack of reasoning.” I don’t really know why the name of the “other free book” is so controversial but it probably has something to do with dichotomies. This dichotomy is dichotomous and boy is it false! And bias in academia is infinite, so John Allison was way off track when he said there was just a liberal bias in academia.

To claim that bias is a question of liberal versus conservative is to demonstrate a lack of knowledge regarding how science functions and works.

Oh, he’s dropping science on you, John Allison! You’re in for it now. I looked it up and science just does not claim that bias is “a question of liberal versus conservative.” It has something to do with chemicals and gravity and stuff–way beyond the writer’s liberal arts province but he knows science enough to know that you’re no scientist, John Allison.

The framework called “Objectivism” is not simply an economic argument, but an epistemological, moral and political one as well. Competing epistemological frameworks would include Imre Lakatos’s famous methodology of scientific research programmes, or Paul Feyerabend’s idea of epistemological anarchism. Competing frameworks of morality would include existentialism, nihilism or the ideas of economic justice promoted by John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman or Robert Nozick. Competing political or economic frameworks are just as numerous. A very short list would include different broad categories such as feminist, Neo-Walrasian, participatory economics, Keynesian or post-modernism, and these lists could easily continue.

Uh oh, Objectivism’s got the scare quotes now. Just four paragraphs earlier it didn’t, but now we’re on high alert. Aren’t “epistemological” and “framework” fun words to say over and over? And look at how well-educated the writer is already! He can classify various frameworkers into neat, simple categories. Existentialism? That’s a morality framework, not an epistemological or political one. Post-modernism is a “competing political or economic framework.” It’s all cut and dry if you just read one of them philosophy encyclopedias, er I mean framework encyclopedias. I would say that this laundry list has a purpose other than name-dropping to sound sophisticated but I doubt that. I’m guessing that the writer is trying to point out that academic bias is all over the map rather than just being liberal, but it could just as easily be that all those frameworks are “how science functions and works.”

Depending on the selection of epistemological, moral or political frameworks an individual chooses can drastically change that person’s conception of “freedom” and how it relates to the “market.” To claim that a course promoting Objectivism is balanced because the syllabus includes Hayek and Marx is an insult to the diversity and intellectual developments that have been made in academia for the past 60 years.

Is this the vaunted attack on freedom un-scare-quoted? That the course on Objectivism isn’t balanced because it only
covers Marxism and not the panoply of academic garbage foisted upon students after the war? This paragraph is perhaps the most telling of any because it underscores the relativistic bullshit that graduates from our nation’s universities: “freedom” is different for everyone and all ideas are equal. If there is to be any philosophic progress in our lifetime, these are the two ideas that we must root out. Underlying them are the notions that everyone’s “reality” is valid, that there are no universal truths, and that we have no way to distinguish among competing frameworks. If this triumverate of irrationality takes cultural hold, then it’s going to be the Dark Ages all over again.

Granted, there has always been a corporate bias at universities and colleges across the country. The bias in academia stems from the structure and design of how academia is organized. The success of competing schools of thought are determined by a number of mechanisms, including the process of peer review, tenure, the allocation of research grants by the government and large corporations, or the prestige that is given to certain schools of thought when a leader in that field is given greater access or influence over policy makers. Through these various mechanisms, corporations and governments are able to influence which schools of thought become more popular. These mechanisms therefore act as a filtering process to determine which ideas are normally taught in the classroom to prepare students for the ‘real world.’

Wait, this problem’s always existed? Why the alarm, brother? The writer probably means that businesses have been sponsoring chairs in academia since the Industrial Revolution. And if a professorship is sponsored, then the professor that accepts the position is a parrot for the corporation and everything out of his mind is tainted with the dread stain of money. But if that professorship is paid for by the government, then that’s okay. Everything out of his mind is deep and pure. And when there’s a dozen of those unsponsored professors for every sponsored one, it’s definitely the sponsored ones that control the show. That’s why academia is so friendly to business and the free market. Because John Allison and the corporatizers like him done bought and paid for the whole show.

The difference is that the influence of corporations used to be indirect. Now, corporations are able to skip all of these mechanisms to directly decide the curricula of the education students receive. It is an attack on the freedom of the intellectual and the scientific process because it circumvents the barriers and spaces that have been established to foster diverse and original ideas. It is a signal to professors that career advancement and gaining full tenure means falling lockstep into line with the ideas corporate donors wish to purchase. It is a reminder that at a university, ideas do not win or lose because of reason, logic or sound debate; it is instead a question of power. Having a large pocketbook is merely one weapon that can be used in the battle for our minds. [emphases mine]

The writer has inadvertently spilled the beans. He was trying to say that big-time sponsorships like John Allison’s have bought the foisting of a rationale for capitalism onto hapless students. He wanted to illustrate that there’s no liberal bias in academia that would require such a purchase to be made in order to get the case for capitalism to be heard. But then he went and blew it by noting that it’s subverting the “barriers” erected against capitalism. And then to compound the issue, he undercut his whole argument by the use of the word “merely” in the last sentence.

The loser will always be the student since we have no control over the future of our university or the selection of ideas we are taught. Instead, the actions of the College of Business simply demonstrate that they are more interested in serving their corporate donors than their students. In practice, BB&T is a consumer that is purchasing a school where the pool of potential job applicants will conform to their ideological agenda. Therefore, BB&T is nothing more than a modern day “witch doctor” that sets the agenda and ideological boundaries presented in the classroom.

Ah, the student as passive receptacle of the ideas spewed by the professors. That is the liberal dream of “freedom” from capitalist ideas hinted at in the first sentence of the column. Unfortunately, he overstepped his intellectual capacity in the previous paragraph and took the breath out of his last sentence. BB&T is paying for this course and the lecture series because there’s no other way for a moral defense of capitalism to get presented. We all hope that students will discover Ayn Rand and Objectivism on their own, but that’s a very long-term hope. John Allison and BB&T are just trying to provide the catalyst that might whet their appetite for true freedom and diversity of ideas.

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Managing Content

October 27, 2007

So I’m looking for the best open-source .NET CMS out there. Here’s what I’ve found for options:

This is the part that I really dread: deciding amongst competing technologies. Each of them has features that I like and some of them even have user interfaces that I prefer. But then, at the same time, you have to look at the codebase and decide which is the one that is extensible, maintainable, and understandable. And the two assessments rarely overlap.

In this situation, there is no overlap. Rainbow Portal has probably the best user interface, but it’s development seems completely stalled and the codebase is, well, terrible. Cuyahoga has an okay user interface (from what I can surmise given the lack of a demo site), an okay codebase (no unit tests, NHibernate pain, fairly straightforward separation of modules from core code), and decent development cycles but a rather lackluster slate of sites using it. Umbraco has an odd codebase (I found it very confusing at least), unknown user interface (really hard to pin it down from the code), good development cycles, and a pathetic slate of sites. The rest of them I didn’t like for one reason or another.

Ultimately I have to pick based on which CMS has the codebase that I can live with most. If the user interface isn’t that compelling, I can make it better if I have source that I’m comfortable with. Plus, I’m going to be extending the hell out of it so it’s got to be robust enough that I’m not fighting the tool to expand and create new applications or modules.

Cuyahoga seems to be it. I just wish I could be more satisfied with the choice; I guess that couldn’t happen unless I was rolling my own.

All for the Lack of a Cable

October 27, 2007

I bought a 250 GB external hard drive awhile back and I even bought SuperDuper, which I have to say is one helluva backup tool. But I stopped making regular backups because the hard drive appeared to have died from disuse. I was very upset by this because I’d only really done a couple weeks worth of backups and stopped it once I got my new MacBook.

Then I read somewhere on the Web that the problem might actually be a bad FireWire cable. I had a spare one from my 2G iPod so I gave it a whirl tonight. OMFG! That was the whole problem?! I cannot believe a cable could go bad after less than a year; I certainly didn’t have it bent or kinked, which I would expect to cause problems.

So tonight I’m backing up the iMac in preparation for an imminent Leopard upgrade. I can’t wait!

[UPDATE (10/29/2007): Remember my saying that SuperDuper is “one helluva backup tool?” Of course you do because it was maybe 100 words ago. The backup went extremely smoothly, taking about an hour and a half for a bootable, complete backup. SD allows you to schedule backups, so I set it up to do it nightly at 2 AM since the iMac never sleeps. Two days later and I’m a nightly-backuper! I can’t tell you the peace of mind such regularity brings. We’ve got about 6,000 photos in iPhoto that we haven’t yet uploaded to Flickr, we’ve got movies that exist only on that computer, and we’ve got music bought from iTunes Music Store that is irretrievable. (Thanks, Apple, for that lovely issue—somehow you know that we’ve already bought a song if we try to buy it again but you can’t let us download it again. Grr.) Thanks to Super Duper, I don’t have to worry that our daughters’ births might be lost forever! I’m not quite up to backup snuff as I could be but that’s just one more external hard drive away.]

Atlas Shrugged and Me

October 12, 2007

I wrote the following essay for a speech class in 1997 and am publishing it now
because today is the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. I encourage you
to read this fascinating novel. Like it or hate it, it brings a perspective you rarely hear.

If I had not read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, I can honestly
say that I would not be standing before you today. For me, Atlas
Shrugged
put into words the implicit philosophical foundation and
values that I had accepted my whole life. After reading it for the first
time, I can still vividly recall the moment of completion—I remember
the exuberance and joy of suddenly seeing, simultaneously, the course of
my future and understanding the path of my past. Even after rereading its
thousand plus pages four more times, I still gain new insights and joys
each time I pick it up. And I am not alone in experiencing this sort of
feeling: a study by the Library of Congress pegged Atlas
Shrugged
as the second most influential book in America, bested
only by the Bible. My reaction to this book determined my career choice
(read: my future) and my acquisition of morality.

Philosophy is, or should be, a guide to life. In Atlas
Shrugged
, Ayn Rand expounds her philosophy, later called
Objectivism, through character development and explicit speeches given by
the protagonists. After reading these aforementioned elements, I was
struck by the anti-philosophical nature of our culture. I could not help
but notice that I had never been exposed to philosophy in all my years of
lower education. I had neither listened to nor talked with anyone who had
ever explicitly recognized the importance of philosophy. In fact, however,
philosophy is of prime importance. As Ayn Rand later said, “The men who
are not interested in philosophy need it most urgently: they are most
helplessly in its power.” It was then, at the ripe age of fifteen, that I
determined that I was going to be a professor of philosophy. I have never
wavered from that decision, nor have I ever regretted it.

But the fundamental change brought about by reading Atlas
Shrugged
was not primarily career-oriented—it was personal.
Prior to reading Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, I had never explicitly
defined my morality, my ethical system. What shreds of morality I had were
disconnected tidbits of common sense and convention. There was, at best, a
hazy definition of what “good” people did. What Atlas
Shrugged
gave me was a moral system explicitly enumerated and
concretely demonstrated through the book’s characters and events. Ayn Rand
believed, as do I (I might add), that while philosophy, in general, is a
metaphysical necessity of man, morality is of particular importance
insofar as it is a guide to the good life. Without going into the tenets
and principles of her ethics, I will just tell you that it defines a code
of selfishness that sets two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition
on its ears. The benefit of having an explicit moral code, I have found,
is that you know what is the good in any situation at any time. If
something happens, I must simply apply the principles and I will know what
is the “straight and narrow.” Moreover, since you know what the good is,
achieving it is that much easier. Think of what uncertainty in morality
leads to: personal anarchy.

Atlas Shrugged is an amazing achievement, being both a
philosophical treatise and a novel. It is splendidly written and
incredibly applicable. I’ve kept the speech deliberately away from plot
and thematic revelations because I did not intend this speech to be a book
report. This book is at the root of my philosophy and, thus, at the core
of my being. If it had not given me the words to formulate my creed, I
doubt I would have pursued a career in philosophy and I would not,
therefore be taking this class to help me with my speaking style.

Unrewarded Persistence

October 9, 2007

Boy, do I really want to love this technique.
I mean, who wouldn’t prefer this:


[PersistField(Location = PersistLocation.Session)]
public bool IsLoggedIn;

Over this:

public bool IsLoggedIn
{
get
{
return Convert.ToBoolean(Session["IsLoggedIn"]);
}
set
{
Session["IsLoggedIn"] = value;
}
}

It’s so elegant and so concise. But it operates through reflection and
reflection has a bad rap for being hoggy. Can you imagine checking every
property for the attribute on load and then checking to see if they’ve
changed at on unload? Talk about a tax on resources.

This beautiful snippet trades readability for performance and I think the
bargain isn’t worth it. The time it takes to write out the getters and
setters of a property is a one-time deal. The decoration method outlined
above makes the code easier to read and easier to describe, but at the
expense of perennial runtime delays.

It’s just not worth it.

Scalping Ain’t Easy

October 9, 2007

John Gruber recently wrote:

Peter Kafka, at Silicon Alley Insider, claims the “obvious solution”
to Hannah Montana ticket scalping—wherein $67 tickets are being
re-sold for upwards of $250—is to raise the initial selling prices
of the tickets, so that the money die-hard fans are willing to pay
goes to the artist and concert promoter, rather than to the scalper,
and then to reduce the prices after the initial high-priced demand
passes.

Good advice, I say. And, of course, it’s exactly what Apple did with
the iPhone. Except Silicon Alley Insider didn’t see it that way with
the iPhone, writing “To us, this move suggests the phone is not
selling as well as Apple had hoped,” and “[The real issue] is Apple’s
obvious misjudgment of the market for a flagship product.”

The problem is that concert promoters and the venues they book at aren’t
terribly interested in maximizing their revenue from ticket sales. Their
primary concern is filling up the venues. They charge a premium for
location and a premium for certain acts, but they don’t exactly go after
the scalper market because that market actually makes the process more
efficient.

If the venue were to charge scalper-level pricing, scalpers wouldn’t buy
the tickets in order to re-sell them. The people who buy the scalper’s
inflated ticket prices may or may not pay the same amount to the venue and
the concert promoters have no idea how much people would be willing to pay
or even what the size of the market might be for these tickets. So they
price the original tickets at a level that works for them.

Scalpers then speculatively buy those tickets in the hopes that they can
make some profit through arbitrage. If they can’t move the tickets, then
they’re out the money. So they only buy what they think they can sell. The
concert venue gets to sell out (and make money from the full audience through
concession sales, programs, t-shirts, and such) and the scalper gets the
chance to make substantial profits with little effort.

Scalping is a legitimate and useful service. People just don’t like paying
more than the face value for anything.