Memorial Day

Memorial Day:

This weekend we remember warriors fallen, and honor warriors living. RangerUp is doing so by donating a fifth of their profits for the weekend to Soldier's Angels, a group that needs no introductions here. I bought their memorial day shirt, which contains the famous St. Crispin's Day speech.

I'm not very good at these posts, but these are serious and solemn matters. We shall remember friends this weekend, and wish well to friends still in danger.


A Woman's Voice:

T99 had a post about women who sing; I suppose I might post up a particular favorite of mine. Her name is Hope: Hope Sandoval.

If you know her music, it is probably from this song, which was once famous.

As far as I know, though, she never did anything bad.

A particular favorite for long summer days:

Later she moved into more experimental music, but without losing the essential beauty.

Philosophy is All

The Roots:

Today's xkcd:

The alt text says: Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at "Philosophy".

I haven't tried that, but I suspect it's really true. Philosophy underlies all forms of human knowledge, as is demonstrated by the career of one philosopher I know. I think I recounted this once in the comments, but it deserves a post of its own.

He began as a student of chemistry, but in the first class he was told, "Really, chemistry is all about physics. So we'll start with physics... and not that boring old physics, but quantum physics."

Well, he thought, if chemistry is all physics, I should just be studying physics! So he changed majors, and went into physics.

First class in physics, he came into class and the professor said, "Really, physics is all math. So we'll start with math...." My friend walked out, and changed majors that very day to mathematics.

The math department didn't tell him that math was 'really' anything else, as mathematicians are pretty self-satisfied. So, for a long time he studied math.

After a while, though, he began to notice that some of the bedrock principles of math weren't accounted for by the math itself. He asked his advisor why we were assuming these bedrock principles.

"Well," his advisor said, "our bedrock principles really come from philosophy."

I know another philosopher who teaches 'philosophy of math.' I saw him once fending off a bunch of very angry young students. I asked him afterwards what that was about, and he said, "Oh, they were all from the math or artificial intelligence programs, and had just finished their first paper. They all gave the same answer to the problem I raised for them: their findings proved that there is a fundamental contradiction in one of the bedrock principles underlying mathematics, but there can't be a contradiction because this is a bedrock principle of mathematics."

Such is the life of a philosopher.

Chick Voices

Chick Voices

I'm overcome this morning by the need for some of my favorite women singing. First, Sandy Denny in Richard Thompson's re-working of the old tune "Willie O'Winsbury":

Which leads me to Maddy Pryor, a song from the Jacobite Rebellion:

And Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the third of the Four Last Songs:

States As Labs

States As Labs

This handy site lets you view the unemployment rates for one or more states over the last few years as a graph contrasting with the national rate.

My husband has been carrying on a debate all week with some online acquaintances, on the subject of the impact of oil prices on unemployment. Part of the discussion has been about differing states' attractiveness to business, with California (high unemployment) coming in last and Texas (low unemployment) coming in first. One of his interlocutors remarked: "The economy is too important to be left to businessmen." I just can't get over that.

Who Speaks to Us

Who Speaks to Us

I guess some graduating seniors get Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy, while others get comedians who feel compelled to make jokes about their pitiful undergraduate sex lives. This site links twelve commencement speeches between 1941 and the present. I couldn't bring myself to watch Will Ferrell, but I was pleasantly surprised by David Foster Wallace. Nevertheless, I'll take Churchill any time: Never give in, never, never, never, except to honor and good sense.

Hegel Goes West

Hegel Goes West:

Via Arts & Letters Daily, a story on the perils of bad philosophy:

In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course....
It's an interesting story, all the same, of how one bad reading of Hegel led to an attempt to paint St. Louis as the great culminating point of history.

Which reminds me of a Chesterton quote:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing -- say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved.
Or St. Louis, I suppose.

Speaking of Chesterton and A&L Daily, they had a charming biography of his lately also.

Neighborhood Curators

Neighborhood Curators

I've been a suburban gal most of my life, with brief forays into other modes. When I went off to college, for instance, I couldn't wait to experience something a little more exciting and urban. For many years, my husband and I lived with a number of friends in a slightly commune-ish adjoining pair of decrepit mansions on the edge of a still-respectable neighborhood of large homes near Houston's Medical Center. We were quite a thorn in our neighbors' side, with our ratty landscaping and excessive front-yard parking and loud parties. The local neighborhood association's petty grievances against us gave me a decades-long aversion to officious meddlers determined to keep up the neighborhood tone. On the other hand, we knew that our landlord was only marking time and that our commune would give way eventually to redevelopment, to our neighbors' delight.

Lately I keep reading articles agonizing over the dilemmas posed by gentrification. Maggie's Farm posted a typical example this week. Young, affluent gentrifiers express a common fear that they will be perceived as intrusive or condescending, or that improvements to the neighborhood will so boost rents and property taxes that long-time residents of more moderate means will be forced out. The long-time residents themselves seem torn between nostalgia and relief. After years of crime and failing businesses, the streets are beginning to seem more safe and prosperous, but are they destined to take part in the improvement? The linked article mentions a concept I've seen expressed before as a "zoo" mentality, but calls it "curating a neighborhood," which I think is even more to the point. There always is a fantasy that the few distinctive, funky aspects of a decayed neighborhood can be preserved in amber even after the new money rolls in and renovates the homes and businesses -- if only we're culturally sensitive, and impose enough rent controls. I wonder, though, about residents who witnessed decades of decline without grasping their own agency in the process, and who now view the neighborhood's re-birth with a similar lack of personal participation.

Back when we were the local commune, a bunch of impoverished students and post-adolescents, we often resented our prosperous, image-obsessed neighbors. What did we care? We were renting, not investing, and we could split any time we liked. We paid negligible rent in exchange for the duty to do almost all our own maintenance, but we mostly lacked the resources or the motivation to keep the place up to middle-class standards. Eventually, when our landlord sold the houses to a developer who put up a boring row of townhouses, our remaining community was displaced. Should we have been kept in a zoo, a museum to commemorate our countercultural experiment? In the event, most of us just got married and moved out to the suburbs.

Now, of course, my husband and I have fled the suburbs again, this time opting for rural rather than urban delights. A lot of people move here to retire. The friction between the established residents and the restless newcomers has a familiar ring. It's not quite the same as the gentrification dispute, fortunately; there's very little racial or class animosity. Some of us newcomers serve as a source of constant hilarity, with our obsessive concern for the wildlife and other city-bred notions. (Half the neighborhood seems to have taken to keeping chickens, but the fresher we are from the city, the more we tend to see them as pets.) And the worm turns: I have to laugh at my discomfort every time I see a new lot cleared for development, as I cleared my own before building: if only no one else would build after we moved here! But I can't afford to buy the nearest few square miles just to ensure that all the nearby woods stay woods. So I expect in time to become a disgruntled long-established resident grumbling over the newcomers and their changes.

The End of the World

The End of the World

I don't know, maybe the world really did come to an end this weekend. The Texas legislature not only came to an agreement on a $165 billion two-year budget to address the state's $27 billion deficit, but it did so by raiding only 30% of its $10 billion rainy-day fund, and without raising taxes, while slashing the previous two-year budget by over 12%.

Still on the legislature's near-term agenda, especially in light of the cuts in education spending: a bill to address our crazy school-finance system. The Texas Constitution requires the legislature to fund a "free" and "efficient" public eduction system. (The legislature's only other constitutional mandate is to pass a budget.) A decade ago, a judge ruled that the traditional reliance on local ad valorem taxes did not pass constitutional muster, apparently because the word "efficient" turned out on close inspection to mean "uniform statewide, unrelated to the resources or desires of local populations." Because the Texas Constitution also prohibits a statewide ad valorem tax, and because there has never been any appetite here to fund schools via any other variety of statewide tax (we have no income tax here, for instance), the powers-that-be crafted a universally reviled mechanism known as the "Robin Hood" school finance system.

Robin Hood doesn't simply require rich school districts to donate all tax revenues over some average per-student level to poorer districts. Instead, it is a confusing wealth-based system in which "excessive tax wealth" is defined by taxable property within each district divided by the number of students attending public school there. If a district has lots of commercial property, or expensive vacation or retirement residential property, it can reach Robin Hood status despite having a higher-than-average proportion of low-income students, and in fact without any regard to its actual level of tax revenues. The Houston and Dallas districts, for instance, have both long since crossed the Robin Hood line even though more than 3/4 of their student bodies are considered economically disadvantaged. Districts in this unenviable position find themselves sending anywhere from a few percent to over half of their school tax revenues to the state for redistribution among "poorer" districts. (The formula is so confusing that, although I've been trying to read up on it for the last week, I am completely at a loss.) Nor can a Robin Hood district escape its status by lowering its taxes; only a devaluation of its total taxable property could achieve that aim. A tax cut would reduce the amount of tax income subject to redistribution, but not the percentage confiscated by the state.

One possibly unintended result: when real estate buyers no longer see a strong link between location and a secure source of funding for excellent local schools, property values drop:

[T]he Robin Hood system is anything but financially efficient. Robin Hood does not just move money from rich school districts to poor school districts. It does so in a way that destroys far more wealth than it transfers, and that erodes the tax base on which school funding depends. . . . ''Our estimates suggest that Robin Hood caused Texas to lose a net of $27,000 per pupil in property wealth,'' . . .

My little county (the smallest in Texas) is a Robin Hood district on the strength of its vacation and retirement housing stock. Our voters have just approved a $26 million bond to fund repairs to crumbling school buildings; in the last six years, we've lost $36 million in local ad valorem tax revenues to the Robin Hood system. A quirk of the system is that taxes earmarked to repay construction bonds are immune to confiscation. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of a decrease in our local ordinary ad valorem school taxes to defray the tax hike we'll need to repay the bond.

Changes in the law in 2006 ameliorated the Robin Hood problems to some degree and transferred a portion of the funding burden to statewide business taxes. Will the newly slimmed-down Texas budget hurt education here? I'm not convinced of the link between spending and good results in this field. In fact, I'm not completely sure there isn't an inverse relationship. Texas ranks 46th in spending among the states, but 4th- and 8th-grade math and reading proficiency levels are all above average. Where Texas does lag, apparently, is in SAT and ACT scores, a result that may say more about the ethnic composition of its students than anything else. The Texas Education Agency figures for 2008-09 show that Hispanic students (including many recent immigrants) account for 48% of public school enrollment and 65% of kindergarten enrollment. Texas still fares better than the national average in each ethnic group. Not bad for a porous-border state.