Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Scene of the Crime Rovers

When I'm not doing science, I play music. Sometimes with real bands, and sometimes with this one. If you've any interest in seeing some really weird stuff, I encourage you to check out my new little blog on this music side-show. Hey, I'm not above e-busking.

Image courtesy of the News and Observer

Monday, August 18, 2008

Facebook: Easier than Spying on Your Neighbors

Dearest Facebook,

I love how you make it easy to keep up with people. Until the day comes when you're no longer a popular destination on the web, I don't need to update people's contact information once I'm their "friend" on your site. People keep their own contact information current.

I hate how you make it easy to keep up with people in the most voyeuristic way possible.
Just glancing at your landing page exposes me to a psychodrama that I sometimes wish I could unsee.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Great Moments in Toddler Language

To Katie, fruits are either blueberries (actually blueberries), pronounced "baa", bananas (actually bananas), pronounced "na-na", or apples (everything but blueberries and bananas), pronounced "app-ah".

This morning Katie pointed to this picture in a book, looked at me, and said "Mama":

I'm working on "Dada":

What I'll Miss About New York:
#14 — The Center of it All

About ten minutes after the hour, the announcer on NY1, New York's own 24-hour, low-budget, local news CNN-clone, says "...and now for a look at the news from the world outside New York." When I hear this, I usually imagine a hypothetical New Yorker responding "Wait — there's a world outside New York?"

As Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover makes clear, the prototypical New York view of the world is one where you're either in New York, you're in the provinces, or you're in some bizarre hinterland. Without so much as an iota of self-consciousness, most New Yorkers consider their city to be the financial, political, and cultural capital of the world, a place of unparalleled cultural diversity unlike the rest of the United States or anywhere else. (Every decade or so, a handful of New Yorkers reignite the New York City secession movement, a project that illustrates the degree to which residents of this city feeling that they are also unlike residents of their own state.)

There's little I could add to the well-worn discussion of New Yorkers' fascination with themselves, so I'll be brief. I'll miss living in a place where such a large percentage of residents are convinced that they live in the center of the universe. Granted, denizens of the Bay Area are more than enthusiastic about their home, convinced that they lead the way culturally and technologically for the rest of the world (More than one person has told me there's a reason that Star Trek located Starfleet's headquarters near the Golden Gate Bridge). Yet, few people in the Bay Area would claim that their area is the epicenter of the world's attention. To me, it seems most New Yorkers would make that claim.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

2 Trains are for Babies

Like many New Yorkers, I'm a big fan of the subway. In fact, enough New Yorkers are big fans of the subway system that the MTA maintains a store where you can buy all manner of subway-themed merchandise, permitting you to flaunt your mass transit ardor to the world through bags, pencil holders and the like. Advertisements for these items are occasionally placed in the cars, and one caught my eye last month as I was studying for the bar exam.

You see, the typical subway rider is attached to one train above all others, as you generally enter the subway on the line nearest your home. For me, that means that I ride the 1 train more than any other. Appealing to this single-train affection, the MTA sells t-shirts for adults and toddlers, permitting subway patriots to tout their favored lines.

The MTA does not offer t-shirts for all 23 subway lines. What's strange about this whole effort is that the selection of shirts offered to toddlers differs from the selection available to adults.

Toddlers can proclaim their love of 9 subway lines: 1, 2, 3, 4, A, E, F, G, and J.

Adults have the option to promote 15 lines: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, A, D, E, F, G, J, L, N, R, and S.

Based on the selected lines, it appears to me that no one likes the 5, B, C, M, Q, V, W, or Z trains — or at least would not attest to this affection in public via a garment. Moreover, certain trains are adults only. Hold up there, little feller! Them 6, 7, L, N, R, S trains? They ain't for kids!

Conversely, the 2 train shirt is toddler only. In a perfect world, maybe the 2 train would be toddler-sized. It'd be a kids train with stops at every playground and F.A.O. Schwartz.

Finally, I'm stunned they left out any line and yet still included a shirt in honor of the S line. I wonder if they've sold any to people who aren't conductors or engineers on this train? You see, there are three trains designated as S, and they do nothing more than ferry people between two to five stations that would otherwise be unconnected in the system. Getting fired up about the S train is a little like getting excited about the shuttle train at an airport.

What I'll Miss About New York:
#15 — City Kid

Steph and I joke that in 2020, our then 13-year old daughter Kate will attempt to pass herself off to her friends as some kind of sophisticate. "You know, I was born in New York City. That's why I have such a good sense of style," she'll say, ignoring the fact that she moved from New York when she was 18 months old.

Once we found out that we'd be having a child during our time in New York, I suspected that we'd want to race out of the city. I thought that the oddities of Manhattan life – the expense, the carlessness, the feeling that you lack room to move – would propel us away. I was wrong.

Sending Kate to daycare for the past year has meant that we've met the parents of her classmates. These families are similarly situated to us, with similar experiences and jobs — and they're not leaving New York any time soon. Moreover, we've met the families that live in our building, with children now heading to college who have lived their whole lives here on 89th street. They're not racing to get out of the city.

All of this is not to say that it's easy to raise kids in Manhattan. You need only look at the expense of Manhattan living to grasp the challenge of raising a family here. Money magazine's online cost of living calculator indicates that someone earning $50,000 in Hastings, Nebraska (just down the road from my hometown), would need to make $119,397.45 to maintain the same standard of living if they settled on the island of Manhattan.

Some examples will help illustrate why my gut thinks the Manhattan number above is on the low side, at least for our neighborhood. First, the annualized cost for Kate's daycare is on par with what my parents paid to send me to Stanford in 1995 (we paid 3x what our friends in Dallas, Texas paid for comparable care). Second, as we look to rent a home in the SF Bay Area (where Money says you must earn $94,771.31 to approximate that Nebraskan $50k), we find that the same price we currently pay for a 1-bedroom apartment in Manhattan gets you a 3-bedroom house in the nicer parts of Silicon Valley.

Despite the expense, despite the concrete and the pace, despite the pollution and the claustrophobia of being in a city without owning a getaway car, we could live here. We could stay. Kate could grow up here. Granted, we'd probably move to Park Slope in Brooklyn, participating in a yuppie migration as predictable as a seasonal bird migration, but we'd still be in New York City.

But we're not staying here. We're leaving New York. It's impossible to know what the future holds, but it looks like Kate's not going to grow up here. She's not going to grow up as a city kid.

And that makes me a little sad.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Michael Phelps v. Mark Spitz

Tonight, Michael Phelps equaled Mark Spitz's 1972 record for Olympic productivity, winning his seventh medal of these Olympic games.

Of course, it's unfair to compare Spitz's performances to those of today's Olympians. Spitz was forced to swim through water as viscous as an oil slick wearing a 3-piece woolen suit, and today's Olympians swim downhill both ways and have suits made of fish scales.

Still, it bears noting that Spitz's gold medal winning times would barely win the women's events today.

RaceSpitz's TimeCurrent Women's World RecordCurrent Men's World Record
100m freestyle51.22Libby Trickett 52.88Eamon Sullivan 47.05
200m freestyle1:52Federica Pellegrini 1:54.82Michael Phelps 1:42.96
100m butterfly54.27Inge de Bruijn 56.61Ian Crocker 50.40
200m butterfly2:00.70Zige Liu 2:04.18Michael Phelps 1:52.03
4×100m freestyle relay3:26.42Netherlands 3:33.62US 3:08.24
4×200m freestyle relay7:35.78Australia 7:44.31US 6:58.56
4×100m medley relay3:48.16Australia 3:55.74US 3:30.68
See Also:
Modern Women's World Records vs. Historical Men's World Records
Modern Women's World Records vs. Historical Men's World Records — Part II

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What I'll Miss About New York:
#16 — The Urban Life

At the risk of sounding like a complete Scaredy Cat, I have to confess that I did not ride the subway the first time I visited New York in 2003. I was a mere babe of 27 at the time.

I knew that New York had experienced a stunning decrease in crime during the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras. Only a year later, in 2004, New York would be named the safest large city in the United States. Still, the subway seemed dangerous to me during that first visit. Some irrational part of me suspected at the time that stepping underground meant that I'd be easy prey for dangers lurking around every darkened corner. I'd be as good as dead.

At Steph's insistence (and mild taunting), I succumbed to reason on Visit to New York #2 and discovered by personal experience that entering the New York subway system did not mean certain death. Indeed, I soon learned that nearly 7 million people survive the subway system each workday. 9-year olds even manage to survive it on their own. Since that first courageous day, I bet I've survived the trip 800 times.

Having moved here from the SF Bay Area, I'd lived in a major metropolitan area before; however, I'd never experienced anything like what it means to live in New York. Attending Stanford and living in the surrounding communities thereafter meant living in a socio-economically segregated setting — a state of affairs that is not unique to the Bay Area, but miles away from life in New York City.

Changing coasts and moving to the most populous city in the country combined my fear of the unknown with my unease with urban poverty. It's easy to have a noblesse oblige attitude about social class when you can remain safely ensconced in the familiar and safe, yet moving to New York reminds you that whatever fear you have of urban violence is built on a foundation of fear about poverty and the fruit of desperation.

The daily demands of living here quickly started the process of exposing and eroding defenses that I didn't know I had, yet this process continues as Katie's dad. Toddlers reach out to people, and people reach back. On a recent trip on the subway, Katie wouldn't stop staring at the brightly dressed person on the other side of the car. Clad from head-to-toe in black & gold, the guy was obviously a member or aficionado of the Latin Kings. No matter for Katie — she had soon melted him into making faces across the subway car in an attempt to make her laugh.

Of course, this brief time in New York has not inoculated me from a fear of the dark or the unknown, but I like to think that this experience has helped me acknowledge some of the roots of whatever unease I feel when faced with a landscape far removed from the Nebraska of my youth. Next month, I'll start a chapter of my life that's much more white picket fence than these past three years have been. Here's hoping that the lessons of New York's urban life are lasting ones.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Poor, Desperate Souls — Click Here!

When I made my Facebook account, I gave the website my age; therefore, I'm not bothered just because Facebook occasionally reminds me of my age when it serves ads on the pages I load.

Still, something about this ad is beyond creepy.

This Way to the Bar Exam

Google Maps driving directions to the bar exam from my father-in-law's house.

"The bar exam is a complete waste of time and resources," a fellow student said to me while we both were studying for last week's terminal law exam. "It's a drag on the economy." A law graduate's time was better spent, he said, on something – anything – other than a test that required each graduate to review the basic framework of so many areas of the law. (In California, an applicant can be tested on 17 subjects. In New York, it's 21.)

Critics of the bar exam see it as little more than a protectionist measure. By forcing new lawyers to jump through a challenging set of hoops, the state bar accomplishes two goals. First, it limits the number of new lawyers, thereby hampering competition and raising prices. Second, the bar uses the exam (and other legal entrance requirements) to deflect criticism without actually improving the profession. Want to make lawyers more ethical? Well, one way to try to do so is to raise the lowest acceptable score on the MPRE (the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, a pre-bar exam test for law students), as California did this January. Because, of course, unethical students couldn't learn legal ethics for the purposes of a multiple choice exam. Of course they couldn't.

I've taken a lot of standardized tests in my day: LSATs, SATs, ACTs, an AP exam or two. The bar exam was the first such test I've taken where the body giving the test makes it abundantly clear that they are NOT on your side. The bar exam is inflicted on would-be lawyers by current lawyers, with all the care of a fraternity paddling.

You hear stories of the guy who forgot to turn off his cell phone and was bounced out of the test. The chief proctor remains you again and again that various minor misdeeds – for example, getting up to go to the bathroom during the last 5 minutes of any of the six 3-hour sessions – will result in the administration an Orwellian sounding Rule 12 Violation. The test is capricious, spiteful, and arbitrary, and it's a damn shame that it has such a profound negative economic effect on so many people who graduate law school only to struggle to pass the bar.

Yet, the bar is a necessary evil on two fronts.

1) It's good to force every lawyer to look deeply into a varied set of subjects. Out of the subjects that could have been tested last week, I knew practically nothing about criminal procedure, wills, trusts, community property, or partnerships prior to studying for the exam. Beyond these unknown areas, most of the other subject areas were topics that I'd studied during the first year of law school, only to never think about again.

I'm joining a law firm this fall that has a narrow and specialized practice, focusing exclusively on securities work and other corporate matters for start-up companies and venture capitalists. Of the 17 areas I studied like mad for the bar exam, only three (contracts, corporate law, and partnerships) will be applicable in the job that I'm about to begin.

Yet who knows what the future holds for my (or any one else's) legal career? Much as I think I'll enjoy this new job, I may someday find myself doing divorces, handling real estate transactions, helping someone plan their estate, or arguing a constitutional claim. Who knows?

What's for sure is that my friends will know that I'm a lawyer and, in a pinch, they're not going to care what kind of law I practice. They'll want me to provide them 30 seconds of counsel regarding their divorce, their home purchase, their arrest. And even though the best advice I could give them would be to usher them toward someone who is experienced in their particular problem area, it'll be helpful for me to have at least a baseline understanding of what they're facing.

Does the bar need to make the exam so onerous to accomplish the goal of making sure each lawyer has a sufficiently broad understanding of the law? No — they could make the second year curriculum as rigid as the first year, insuring that each student took the bar exam courses, even at the cost of studying areas of the law they find interesting. But a softer test with more required courses is not going to happen because of the next point.

2) Law schools – at least my law school – are rather lax about quality control. I went to law school with some of the most intelligent, hard-working people I've ever met. I also went to law school with some of the most unrepentant slackers I'll ever hope to meet.

As I noted a few months back, if you make it to the final semester of 3L at my school, you're practically guaranteed to graduate. Even prior to passing this graduation event horizon, the degree to which people skate by, er... customize law school to their own needs is really amazing.

To pick one area where people are permitted to graduate while phoning it in, let's look at lecture attendance. Sure, the ABA paternalistically requires perfect attendance from law school students. Yet, (in my experience) such a rule is only enforced by hollow threats and mock professorial scorn. The Socratic method means calling on students each class, and there were a set of names that I got used to hearing in law school that just weren't connected to people. Listening to the optimistic and naive professor calling their names reminds me of the words of the great philosopher Mitch Hedberg:
When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it's busy, they start a waiting list. They start calling out names, they say "Dufrane, party of two. Dufrane, party of two." And if no one answers they'll say their name again. "Dufrane, party of two, Dufrane, party of two." But then if no one answers they'll just go right on to the next name. "Bush, party of three."

Yeah, but what happened to the Dufranes? No one seems to give a shit. Who can eat at a time like this — people are missing. You fuckers are selfish... the Dufranes are in someone's trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they're hungry! That's a double whammy.

We need help. Bush, search party of three! You can eat when you find the Dufranes.
Granted, having attended almost all the assigned classes during law school, I can see why people don't come. On occasion, class took on the feel of oral argument before the Supreme Court: It was an exercise that is just for show, because the result is determined on the basis of other factors. Just as the justices make up their minds on the briefs, if you've already made you mind up regarding a case's holding after reading it, class just might confuse you.

Naturally, the basic problem with the I-don't-need-to-go-to-class attitude is that you are never the problem, it's always the other guy. They might need to go to class to really master the material, but you're past that. You get it. It's not your problem.

It's the reliance on donations – donations that come from graduates, not drop-outs – that provides the systematic impetus for pushing people through law school who are incapable or uninterested in pulling themselves through. Yet, the bar exam doesn't have any such conflict. It's not going to cut you any slack, applicant.

The bar exam is a train wreck, and the test could be administered far more equitably. If the goal of the exam is to insure lawyers have at least a basic level of knowledge in the tested areas, I'd prefer that they test ALL the areas every year, instead of only rotating through essay topics, thereby testing a fraction of what you've studied and forcing you into the dangerous game of guessing the content of this year's test.

I disagree with my fellow classmate who saw the exam as little more than a waste of time. Despite the frailties of the test itself , the sixty day frantic review that precedes it produces social value by creating more generalists and offering law school slackers a chance at redemption.

"The bar exam only tests one thing," a future co-worker of mine said earlier this summer. "It tests whether you can set aside your regular life in the service of a big project." That's about right.