Monday, July 12, 2010

Immigrant antics

We live in a large condo complex in the heart of Silicon Valley, in California. I doubt any other place in the world is more welcoming of immigrants. It attracts the best and the brightest from all over the world.

My spouse and I are native Californians. Nevertheless, our circle of friends includes an Indian Hindu software executive from Pune, a Russian Jew art therapist from Moscow, a Belarussian couple from Minsk (both programmers), a South African of South Indian extraction from Durban, her (former East) German physicist-turned-programmer husband from Leipzig, a Chinese-American freelance translator and his Taiwanese accountant wife, and more.

All have found themselves warmly welcomed here.

And our particular town has one of the top 100 public high schools in America--such that our schood district has to continually fight to keep out kids from out of district whose parents try to sneak them in. The schools are also partly responsible for housing here costing appreciably more than comparable housing in surrounding communities.

This attracts immigrants ambitious for their children. Consequently our condo complex is about 40% Chinese and other Asian, and 10% Russian and folks from other former Soviet Bloc countries.

The Russians have been notably resistant to assimilation. Several have large satellite dishes aimed at Russian satellites. They only watch Russian TV, rarely socialize with anyone but other Russians, and many still speak broken English even after decades in this country. So many Russians live in this area that a number of local markets cater to Russian culinary tastes, so they don't have to eat anything but Russian food. Many have been perfectly friendly as neighbors, but they have shown a tendency to treat the Homeowners' Association rules as not applying to them unless they're forced to by threat of fines.

Our city is a bastion of Political Correctness, part of which is requiring condo complexes like ours to include a fair number of units reserved for low income families, sold at less than half the prevailing price for other units (OTOH when such owners sell their units they're required to observe these lower prices then as well).

Surprise, most of the crime and violence we've experienced here over the years can be traced to people living in these low income units. And many of the Russians here took advantage of these low income units to get in here. Curiously, most of them own more expensive vehicles than we do.

In terms of governing our community, the many Chinese have been most apolitical. The Russians are another matter. Not one of them has ever volunteered to serve on the board or on the various committees a large condo complex needs. Instead, their specialty is complaining.

At regularly-scheduled board meetings, they regularly show up and gripe. For example, one of them turns out to be using our complex's pool for their home business of teaching swimming.

When the Association told them the pool is everyone's, not theirs, they came and griped about it--and demanded that the temperature be turned up to make it easier to run their business (people swimming laps want the temperature lower). The husband, a Soviet-Afghan war veteran, even threatened violence to the Board members if they got in his way. He has also stalked several board members and threatened them privately, along with other residents who came afoul of him.

Now the complex needs an earthquake retrofit, since most of its buildings are inadequately reinforced soft story designs (residences over garages). It will cost roughly $10,000 per unit to do this.

But a group of the Russians here have decided that they know more about earthquake retrofits than Northern California's most experienced structural engineering firm, more than the United States Geological Survey, more than the 2012 Existing Building Earthquake Retrofit Code--and more than the homeowner association's board, which serves without compensation (maybe that's why they never volunteer to serve on the board).

So they've mounted a frenzied opposition to the retrofit. They attend the meetings given by the engineers, the association's lawyer, the board, and at every meeting during the Q&A period they make long, rambling speeches in broken English. Each time whoever's running the meeting answers the questions buried in the speechifying. Then at the next meeting the same people make the same rambling speeches with the same buried questions.

And to top things off, they've accused the Board of being criminals--of taking kickbacks from the engineering firm. They don't seem to realize that this is libel.

In other words, they're acting as if this is the Soviet Union, where the State takes care of everything--badly--and every official is taking bribes routinely. And since they don't seem to know much at all about America, I suppose it's natural that they'd assume that this place is just like the place they come from.

Now I assume these are all legal immigrants--though I have heard rumors that the Russian Mafia has a little racket going of getting people visas to immigrate here when the people in question would not quality if the American immigration authorities knew the truth.

But assuming that they are legally here, this tale does go to show having lots of immigrants isn't all peaches & cream. This group of Russians may well sway enough people to keep us from getting the 2/3 majority needed to finance the retrofit.

Yet the USGS says there's a 2 out 3 likelihood of a major quake here within the next 30 years. If they succeed in stopping the retrofit and the quake comes--they will be responsible for eliminating the life savings of many people (in the sense that most Americans' equity is mainly the value of their home), and possible even for the injury or even death of some.

There are rational Russians here. We're friends with those. But the suspicious, paranoid, peeny wise-pound foolish Old Country mossbacks predominate.

On the whole I favor legal immigration. But our experiences here lead me to question the wisdom of bringing in ill-educated immigrants, of not expecting them to really learn English, of PC rules requiring many units to be sold at below-market rates (race mixing is fine--class mixing, not so fine), and not expecting immigrants to assimilate. For these certainly have not, and it's been decades for a lot of them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Who's qualified to talk about business?

Here's a typical right wing comment on liberal economist Paul Krugman's latest New York Times column:

Jeff k
July 9th, 2010
10:48 am
Mr. Krugman - Since you know so much about how business leaders think why don't you tell us in your next column all about your own experience running a business?


I see. So only successful businessmen are qualified to critique businesses.

And by that logic, only successful big business executives are qualified to critique big businesses.

And only successful big business telcom executives are qualified to critique big telcoms.

Isn't this the logic doctrinaire leftists use to claim only women can criticize women, blacks blacks, yada yada?

I can't critique a movie unless I'm a movie director myself? I can't criticize the guy who robs me unless I'm a successful robber myself?

Beyond the ridiculousness of this line of thinking, there's an underlying anti-intellectualism you can find in many such comments. They as much as say that some double-dome book-taught egghead don't know 'bout the reel wurld. Nossir.

I guess that's a comfort for people who are uneducated themselves and not over-endowed between the ears.

But don't be too smug in thinking it's only Tea Party types who are guilty of logic lapses and anti-intellectualism. Left wingnuts are just as guilty when their doctrinaire thinking is challenged. Visit any Women's Studies class at any university and you'll see what I mean. Or how about the assertion that only whites are racists--blacks are categorically excluded from this sin?

Of course there's nothing wrong with personal experience. One of my favorite novelists, Joseph Conrad writes brilliantly about life at sea, in Oriental waters, in the merchant marine. Well no wonder. He was a merchant marine officer plying those waters for many years, and only quit and started writing because some tropical disease invalided him and he had to make a living.

On the other hand, another of my favorite writers is Patrick O'Brien (that was his nom de plume actually), whose Aubrey-Maturin marine novels reveal a profound knowledge of the sea and sailing---that he lacked completely. It was all meticulous research coupled with a brilliant mind.

Personal experience of something doesn't guarantee wisdom, and lack of personal experience of something doesn't guarantee ignorance. Experience helps when combined with a good mind, but it isn't mandatory.

And in general, when you're debating with someone and they raise points like this, it usually isn't a cynical ploy (as I think it is when a Karl Rove does it). Rather, it's usually a sign of tunnel logic--not considering the broader implications of the principle someone has implicitly invoked.

So instead of pouncing, you might consider helping them see why they can't say such things--especially if they're someone you're going to have to deal with in future, such as a workmate or your sister's Tea Party husband.

Remember, the goal isn't to win the debate--it's to win the mind.

So you might start by agreeing that is can certainly help to have successful personal experience in some field of endeavor before you start criticizing people in that field.

But a doctor doesn't have to have contracted HIV in order to diagnose it in someone else, does he?
A director doesn't have to be an Oscar-winning actor before he can direct actors, does he?

The fact is that human nature is human nature. That's why Epictetus said "being human, nothing human is alien to me." Someone with clarity of mind can perceive others.

For example, I'm not an engineer, but I certainly can understand why Japanese motorcycle manufacturers went from vertically split engine crankcases to horizontally split ones, even though that complicated manufacturing, because it eliminated gasket leaks. And I can criticize British motorcycle manufacturers for failing to follow the Japanese makers' lead, thus preserving their rep for making beautiful, high-performance, unreliable, hard-to-repair motorcycles. And as Toyota proved, vehicles that are average in every respect but reliability will sell very well indeed.

Because in many cases you just need common sense, an understanding of common human motivations, training in understanding logic and verifying facts, and a measure of humility that leads you to seeking corroboration for your ideas--and then you can certainly critique some area other than your primary area of expertise.

Economists like Paul Krugman often know more about the forest than a successful businessman does, who's necessarily focused on his particular tree. Moreover, successful businessmen almost invariably ascribe their success to their own business genius--never to dumb luck, rarely to their subordinates' efforts, rarely to a corporate culture they may have inherited rather than created, rarely to macroeconomic circumstances that pushed them forward--and never to innovations by subordinates against their express orders, but for which they took credit after they succeeded.

And the human mind is a sucker for a good narrative. Successful businessmen construct a narrative of their success, with themselves as the sole hero, after which they could pass a lie detector test, because inside their mind that self-serving narrative overwrote the parts of the brain where the truth had been stored.

Possessing the truth can be Cassandra's curse unless you can convince others of that truth. And political opinions are really, really hard to change. You'll win a debate with some relative, then listen to them talking the next day and find that their opinions not haven't changed, they've congealed even more.

The hardest thing is to get them to discover the truth themselves. If they do--then they'll remember it. Hence the superiority of Socratic instruction, even though it can try your patience to try it.

The GOP is not pro-business.

The GOP is not pro-business. It's pro-CEO.

Just as Wall Street morphed from a capital funding service industry for American manufacturing into a fiscal manipulation operation benefiting only itself, America's CEO class have morphed from business leaders into board of directors manipulators intent on lining their own pockets at the expense of shareholders, employees and customers--and America.

Business don't make political contributions. CEOs and Wall Street insiders do--mainly to Republican politicians. And the payback they want is whatever helps them in their decades-long campaign to redistribute America's wealth from the middle class into their own pockets.

This has been hugely successful. CEOs made 20X what their low-level employees made back in the 1950s. Now it's more like 400X. And I don't see their business decisions and leadership being 20X better than CEOs' decisions were in the 1950s.

This shift came out of middle class pockets. And they have the brass to claim that President Obama believes in wealth redistribution! They're the ones who do, and this is simple fact, easily verified from nonpartisan sources.

The Republican Party leadership comprises the nimble and devoted servants of these billionaires, who feel no sense of allegiance to this country or even to their own businesses. They've jiggered the rules so that if their business prospers, they prosper. And if their business sags or even fails, they still prosper. Ditto the country as a whole.

Only when the fortunes of the leaders rise and fall with those of their organization do leaders lead well. Otherwise, if they've become uncoupled from their organization's fortunes, they will work for their own ends regardless of how it affects that organization. That's just human nature.

The Democrats are no saints, and I strongly oppose their efforts to help Mexican citizens living here illegally at Americans' expense, as well as their pandering to public employee unions and every ethnic/racial/religious group they can single out for special favors.

But their policies aren't driving America into the ditch.

The real problem is that in their six years of ruling all three branches of government, the Republicans did so much damage to the economy that it will take over a decade to repair it.

Yet presidents are elected every four years, and President Obama can't possibly undo the Republicans' damage in that timeframe. This is the advantage dictatorships like Communist China have over us--their solutions' timeframes can match reality.

So we'll let the foxes back into the henhouse, most likely.

After all, they are the experts on hens.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

President Obama made a recess appointment--proving he's a dictator!!!?

True, recess appointments represent an end run on the normal confirmation process. But it's also true that they're perfectly legal.

And it's ALSO true that routinely blocking 80% of a president's appointments ALSO represents an end run on the normal confirmation process.

The Senate's rules evolved to help it work as a deliberative body--as a check against the House's volatility.

But they also evolved during the century or more in which senators worked across party lines, had dinner together, and believed that seeking common ground was the height of democratic political virtue.

Then the Republican Party became radicalized in the early 1990s, driving for narrow majorities but then governing as if they had a 99% voter mandate, then in defeat acting as if they still have a right to govern, using the tools of that more cooperative era to obstruct everything from minor appointments to major legislation.

When a 60% vote is required to pass or confirm practically anything or anyone, it puts more power in the hands of the minority than the Founders intended or envisioned, and in some ways establishes minority rule.

Against this backdrop, a recess appointment is pretty minor stuff.

And the howls of "dictator!" "Marxist" "Hugo Chavez" by right wingnuts when President Obama tries to defend himself and his democratic mandate illustrate how radicalized the GOP has become--these people believe they have a God-given right to rule, regardless of the vote, and a God-given dispensation to violate the spirit of Senate rules to thwart the decision of the voters to put a Democrat in the White House.

When you climb in the ring wearing gloves and the other guy's wearing brass knuckles--you'd better take the gloves off.

[image: from Rolling Stone article "The GOP's dirty war: how Republicans have risen from the dead by distorting Obama's agenda and shutting down the government."]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gifted student education--being left behind by No Child Left Behind

The New York Times article "The Pitfalls of Identifying a Gifted Child" featured essays by four education "experts," followed by hundreds of comments, mostly by former gifted students.

There's a political angle to this.

The Democratic Party is philosophically not behind gifted student education. I know many party members will disagree with this assessment, but it's true. The party has proletarian roots that leaves it focusing on what it perceives to be disadvantaged people. On the other hand it is behind more teachers, more educational specialties, lavish special ed programs, and more public education in general, so--especially in flush times--it will tolerate what appears on the face of it to be an elitist program.

The Republican Party is also not behind gifted education philosophically. It favors a traditional focus on the 3 Rs and not this fancy-schmancy educator stuff. And its Small Government focus says less public sector is better unless proven otherwise. And gifted kids are by definition gifted--let them be gifted on their own dime.

And the GOP has acquired a powerfully anti-intellectual angle courtesy of Nixon's Southern Strategy, in which the party gained the South in exchange for becoming Christian Fundamentalist with a focus on not teaching evolution and sex instead of focusing on what we should be teaching--and to whom.

I may be setting up straw man arguments here to make my point, but even if you disagree with my attaching party labels to these attitudes, these attitudes are so common they're in the majority.

Today school districts spend many, many millions of dollars on mentally handicapped children, while cutting back on gifted student programs or eliminating them altogether.

The Return on Investment for society has been almost nonexistent. It takes people off welfare rolls, or reduces their dependency at least, and the workforce gets dishwashers, box boys and nannies--something we already have in abundance.

OTOH investment in gifted kids--especially those from disadvantaged groups and/or families--not only gives us more lead engineers, innovative doctors, artists, and entrepreneurs--it helps ensure that they won't use their talents to become con artists or biker gang leaders or BP executives...or Lee Atwaters, for that matter.

That is:

Un-helped mentally handicapped kids become hapless adults.
Un-helped gifted kids become dangerous adults.
Helped mentally handicapped kids become unskilled laborers at best.
Helped gifted kids add to everyone's opportunities, prosperity and health.

In the NYTimes article, the educational experts talked about all the tests we have to identify gifted kids--used as much to block kids who (or whose parents) want to enter gifted programs.

My nonpartisan answer is: this is largely about educational administrators being control freaks and trying to stick what they regard as their expertise into an area they can't actually contribute, unless they're gifted themselves. And I guarantee you most are not, in spades.

Here's my surefire way to control admission into gifted student programs: Don't.
Let anyone enter who wants to or whose parents want them to. If the gifted program moves at the pace and intensity it will IF it's run by ex-gifted student who are now teachers, non-gifted kids will opt out.

Meanwhile you'll have given opportunities to kids who might not fit any standardized test methodology.

All students should be tested for ability periodically, or, in many areas (not just the arts) their performance--their actual output--should be surveyed for exceptionality, and ones who seem gifted should be invited to take a whack at a gifted program.

And note that one of the biggest advantages of gifted programs is that it helps socialize kids who otherwise often think they're alone--and that they don't have to work to excel.

The biggest problem with gifted student program funding is that people who aren't gifted don't want to help them, even if it's proven that helping them winds up helping all of us because they contribute so much to society when they are helped--because the human mind is so susceptible to envy that we're often willing to harm ourselves and our loved ones just to ensure that we do nothing for those we dislike.

The comment thread to this article is pretty amazing. If you read these comments, you may get the impression that the experts who wrote the essays had never actually dealt with a gifted kid, and that present and former gifted kids were not consulted when the experts were devising their programs in many cases.

One comment pointed out that people's worries were silly, since all high schools have lavish, well-funded programs for the gifted, and the gifted students in these programs are admired by the other students instead of being harassed and assaulted.

Of course the commentor was referring to school districts' football and basketball programs (with tongue firmly though accurately in cheek).

My comment was #267.
I'll include it for those who don't want to read what the others said, but I urge you to do so--they should touch you, even if neither you nor your kids were ever identified as gifted. Here it is (sorry for the duplications with what I just said here. Shikata ga nai (Japanese cosmic shrug)):

I belong in this thread because my IQ is around 150 & I established the gifted student program at an exurban high school & taught it for 2 years. Plus, besides being academically gifted (which IQ measures), I'm also artistically fairly gifted.

This is probably the only comment thread I've been in where I could say such things without looking like a braggart. Here, I'm just one of the guys/gals. Wouldn't it be something if everyone on this thread could get together for a long weekend? That would sure beat my high school's 40th reunion, where the most interesting aspect was the Dead Board.

The stories told by the commentors who were themselves gifted kids provide a statistically significant sample, & mostly we say the same things. And mostly the gifted education "experts" appear never to have talked to any of us--especially Ms. Hemphill, who was singled out by scores of commentors for the toxicity of her recommendations.

Reality check:

1. Socialization happens when you get approval if you do A & disapproval if you do B--from peers & authority figures. But outside prestigious college towns & urban magnet schools, everything gifted kids do (especially the superbright ones in the 150+ IQ zone) gets disapproval. So we don't get socialized UNLESS we can work with true peers, taught by future peers. Ungifted teachers can no more teach gifted students of any age than good mechanics can teach rocket science.

That can lead to elitism, but without true peer classes we just become even more elitist. I recommend having gifted students "pay" for their special classes by tutoring less gifted kids. That also helps forge connections with other kids in the school that wouldn't happen in normal situations.

2. Most normal kids & teachers either actively dislike gifted kids or at best tolerate them. They can’t understand us, but often don’t even understand that. Our minds work qualitatively differently from mundanes’ minds, regardless of field of endeavor.

3. Leftist educational ideologues epitomize what Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans about: that we'd replace equality of opportunity with enforced equality, due to mundanes’ envy of all but athletic superiority. Christina Aguilera was harassed by other kids too.

4. Giftedness is mostly superior genes. Some ungifted kids' helicopter parents force-feed their kids & game the system, but nothing can give mundanes the scope of thought & intellectual drive--often frighteningly intense--of the truly gifted. We can spot each other in seconds-to-minutes, can't we?

5. 95% of the money & effort spent on low IQ students produces nothing of value to society. This is political suicide to say. It is also true. Mostly they'd be happier if they had marginally smarter teacher's aides help them master basic life skills, if possible.

6. 95% of the (now vanishing) money & effort spent on gifted (both "smart" & "near-genius") kids pays society back in skilled work & innovation--and in steering bright kids away from criminal activities such as computer hacking & various cons & frauds.

Turn a dimwit into a sociopath & you get a pickpocket or a stickup artist. Turn a genius into a sociopath & you get BP's executive suite.

7. It may be the parents' primary responsibility to give gifted kids the enrichment they need, but what about those with rotten parents? I was raised by a college-dropout drunkard. My largely absent dad had a 7th grade education. For kids like me it was school or nothing.

8. The issue of elitism & of testing primarily to exclude kids can be addressed best by making gifted programs self-selecting. Few mundanes want to spend time in our company, & the few who do should be welcomed.

This is my revolutionary suggestion. But I did it myself in my own gifted class--one girl who didn't test well enough wanted in, & I went to bat for her. Why not? As some commentors have pointed out, test-taking ability is a factor (and one I excel at), but it's not the only one. And she was willing to do the work.

Give bright kids the opportunity to dive into learning & most will--while most who aren't will avoid such situations like the plague. And if the teacher is commensurately bright, he/she will drive the kids such that the gifted ones will love it & the mundanes will bail.

9. The prime socialization lesson to teach your gifted kids is that if you treat mundanes like equals they'll think you're treating them like inferiors; but if you treat them like inferiors--but with noblesse oblige--they'll think you're treating them like equals. That is, don't firehose them but don't get all patronizing either. After all, none of us did diddly to earn or deserve our smarts.

10. No Child Left Behind has left gifted kids behind, squandering tax dollars on those who largely neither want nor can use the extra help. The program hasn’t touched black/Latino dropout rates, while it’s gutted Gifted Ed. And I voted for Obama.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Arizona's immigration law & states' rights

The Federal suit against Arizona demands that Arizona do exactly nothing to stop illegal immigration--including implementing Federal immigration law at the local level.

But the federal government also demands that the states provide illegal aliens with extensive social services, from schools to providing for illegal aliens who've been convicted of crimes and are imprisoned. These are mostly unfunded mandates, in the sense that Federal inaction about illegal immigration is responsible for the presence of millions of illegal aliens in our country.

This would be like the cops demanding that you not protect yourself--while not patrolling your neighborhood or responding to 911 calls for help either.

Also, here the federal government is suing a state for implementing federal law locally; but it isn't suing local governments for flouting federal law by declaring cities and other entities as sanctuaries, refusing to cooperate with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)--even providing sanctuary for illegal alien felons.

So--why would the federal government prosecute Arizona for implementing federal law, but leave sanctuary cities alone? The simplest explanation is racialist pandering pretending to be principled.

The Feds sue Arizona over its illegal immigration law

...and of course all the newspaper comment threads about this have lit up like Christmas in the Philippines. My comment:

So here's this thread in a nutshell: two groups, one hating everything Obama does, the other loving everything Obama does, screaming at each other, using the federal lawsuit against Arizona as a pretext.

neither is speaking for the majority of Americans, who voted for Obama (for healthcare reform, fiscal reform, and to stop the Republicans from looting the treasury), but who oppose illegal immigration and support Arizona's implementation of Federal immigration law.

WE are the majority. We oppose illegal immigration and amnesty for illegal aliens. But we're glad we voted for Obama, because he is carrying through on those other things, as much as someone can under the circumstances.

But we are certainly disappointed in Obama's move against Arizona, and consider it mainly political--trolling for the votes of American citizens who refer to themselves as "Mexican" (not even "Mexican-American," according to a Pew poll).

Yet we will probably vote for him again in 2012, and for many/most Congressional Democrats this year, because even though the Democratic Party leadership's ethnic group advocacy is a bone in our collective throat, what the Republican leadership has done to us and promises to continue doing to us is even worse.

The fact is that neither major party--nor any minor one--truly represents the majority of the American people. We are not their constituents, actually.

Both parties are beholden--to various degrees--to special interests with big money or big voting blocs.

So the American majority isn't in love with either party. We just do the best we can with what we've got. That's why we often vote in governors of the party that's in the minority in the state legislature.

This lawsuit is a case in point. The American majority doesn't like the hard-right majority of the Supreme Court, put in place by several Republican presidents.

But if SCOTUS slaps down this lawsuit we'll be grateful for that.

Those of the majority who are registered Democrats should contact our Congressional reps and tell them how much we believe this lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money and a subversion of the DOJ.

But even on this issue, don't think we'll be fooled by Republican tirades. It was the Republican Party leadership that almost passed "comprehensive immigration reform" during the Bush II reign, and was only stopped by a revolt of the rank and file. Yet Republican voters continue to fall for their leaders' lies today.

The Republican politicos keep telling us to forget what they actually did when they were in power, and only listen to what they say now, when they can't do anything about it. Talk is cheap, isn't it?

We don't get fooled again.

[image from]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gone fishin'

Not really. But we are going camping by Lake Tahoe over the July 4 weekend. Back next week!