Archive for March, 2011

Behavioral observation: Powerpointia grad-studentus

Slide proliferation is a well-documented evolutionary phenomena that results from cooperative behavior in the species powerpointia grad-studentus. Not observed in solitary p. grad-studentus, but in ecological systems where p. grad-studentus must work together to forage for grades, we observe an arms race to add more slides. Each p. grad-studentus thinks that adding another slide will yield a better grade, when in reality their collective action makes the whole presentation less compelling, and the entire flock may starve (ie, not get an A). By limiting the number of slides, faculty are applying selective pressure which in the end will result in a more fit powerpointia grad-studentus. Punctuated equilibrium for powerpoint.


03 2011

Monday Miscellany

Bad news: 3rd term final exams and projects are this week at JHSPH. Good news: next week is Spring Break!

Some links for the week:

Japan: Hard to think of good things in the wake of tragedy, but it could have been much worse: Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes.

On GAVI: Some coverage by Tom Paulson of Seth Berkley’s appointment as the new CEO of the GAVI Alliance, which funds vaccinations in many developing countries. Paulson also links to a thought-provoking read, “Six Ideas and Questions for GAVI’s New CEO,” by Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development, and an article Paulson wrote on the early days of GAVI. (And I spent a good chunk of my weekend working on a paper comparing policy alternatives for GAVI’s co-financing policy for a class taught by @orinlevine.)

Cote d’Ivoire: Close to half a million people have been displaced by the Cote d’Ivoire crisis so far.

Microcredit: Is microfinance a neoliberal fairtytale?

Baltimore: David Simon (creator of The Wire) on the drug war in Baltimore and beyond.

Refugees: Jina Moore with this disturbing story: “Why an American lawyer is pulling the plug – literally – on a Rwandan refugee.”

Rwanda: The Trouble with Rwanda by Lindsay Morgan.

Religion (or lack thereof): Sociological Images presents demographics of the non-religious.

Random: The blog Best of Wikipedia has been on a roll lately: see Errors in the US Constitution, dihydrogen monoxide hoax, and Mozart and scatology (ie, toilet humor).


03 2011

Atlas Shrugged

My oldest brother, Drew, is a professional oboist, reedmaker, and composer. He also writes witty things on Facebook which don’t get out the wider world, like the bullet-point review of Atlas Shrugged below. While I still haven’t gotten around to reading anything by Ayn Rand (shocking!), this hits the high points of pretty much everything I’ve heard of her, so I’m re-posting it here (with his permission). With a new movie coming soon we’re all going to be inundated with a new generation of Objectivists, so it’s time to read up. His review:

  • Atlas Shrugged is 50% story and 50% sermon. It would’ve been a better book had it been half as long, or at least half a venomous.
  • Atlas Shrugged is an eloquent expression of a beautiful idea that (like all beautiful ideas) becomes grotesque when unchecked by counterbalancing forces.
  • Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy novel. The real world is not powered exclusively by a dozen productive geniuses who all happen to agree on everything. Elves and dwarves are more believable.
  • In the real world, businessmen are not demigods, and politicians are not devils.
  • In the real world, wealth is inherited by George W Bush, not Francisco d’Anconia.
  • Ivy Starnes says, “The plan was a noble ideal, but human nature was not good enough for it.” Sadly, Rand does not realize that her villain’s words apply equally to her own ideology.
  • At first it’s confusing that an author capable of such brilliantly concise dialogue so often launches into long-winded and half-baked rambles. But there’s a reason for it: outrageous ideas seem less outrageous with repetition. Partisan media understand this. You don’t have to justify a claim if you repeat it often enough. I laughed out loud when Rand first referred to the “looters.” But by the end of the book, that peculiar usage seemed almost normal.
  • Not since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a book so clearly shown that brilliant novelists often make lousy philosophers. Of course, brilliant philosphers often make lousy philosophers, too.


03 2011

Sentinel chickens

“In May 2000 Canadian Health authorities stationed cages of sentinel chickens along 2500 km (1550 miles) of the border with the United States in an effort to identify the presence of West Nile virus in susceptible animals before the disease was detected in humans in Canada. Ultimately, the sentinel chickens were key in detecting a new viral epidemic.”

Source here. And then there are “Super Sentinel” Chickens


03 2011

Monday Miscellany

Things and links I liked:

  • I just renewed my membership in the National Association of Rocketry (I maintain a separate rocketry blog but haven’t updated in a while because it’s not flying season), which includes a $2 million liability insurance policy for rocket launches. Oddly, the notice I got with my renewal says this: “NAR insurance does not cover any activities which involve use of alcoholic beverages, criminal assaults and batteries, nuclear accidents or sexual abuse.” I can understand the others, but seriously, “nuclear accidents?” Was that necessary?
  • My favorite blog discovery of last week is “Covering Health” on health care journalism. Here’s a post on balancing daily reporting and narratives.
  • Dave Algoso (who I met at the AidWatch conference this weekend) writes “Would you hire me if I disagreed with you? What if I did it publicly?”
  • My friend Kate Otto on planning and pregnancy in Indonesia.
  • On DFID’s aid review.
  • Something that brings left and right together (sort of): cancer research.
  • The typical human is a 28 year old Chinese man.
  • For those currently applying to grad school, here’s a useful video on the Harvard Kennedy School application.


03 2011

Something powerful, ctd

Yesterday I posted about HU Queer Press, an online magazine published by an anonymous group of LGBTQ students at my alma mater, Harding Unviversity. Since then the issue has gotten a lot of press, including Jezebel, The New Yorker blog, KARK, and others.

I got a call earlier today from a gay Harding student who is upset by HUQP’s approach to the issue and says that some of what they say is factually incorrect. I said that if he wanted to write a response, I’d publish it for him and keep him anonymous as well. I’ll reserve my reactions for the comment space, and would love to hear other views as well. Here’s what he said:

I am a gay student currently attending Harding University who wants to voice my own experiences and give voice to the experiences of other gay students at HU.  While the accounts presented in “The State of The Gay” e-zine are compelling, sad, frustrating, and even downright infuriating, they are not representative of the current environment on campus.

Harding University does not have a rule against “being gay.”  I am open about my sexuality all over campus—to students, faculty, staff, and members of the administration.  The fact that I am a gay man is common knowledge, not just at Harding University, but also at my church (a Church of Christ). Never once have I been threatened with expulsion or forced reparative therapy.  If anyone was threatened with disciplinary action unless they received counseling, it was not for simply identifying themselves as gay.   When a rule is broken, action is taken, but there is no rule against “being gay.”  This hasn’t always been the case, and Harding isn’t a perfect place. Is there bigotry there?  Yes, and we must deal with that.  We should not blast them, however, for things that simply aren’t true.

Additionally, there is a growing impression that Integrity Ministries at Harding is a place where people are forced to go and be “fixed.”  This is simply not true.  Everyone who is a part of Integrity Ministries is there of their own free will and choice.  The names of the persons attending meetings and/or utilizing resources are not even known by anyone in the administration, faculty, or staff. Students approach the ministry, the ministry does not approach (or impose upon) students, and their identity is kept highly confidential.

If the ethic driving the current debate is freedom of choice, then we must extend that freedom to those whose faith and personal relationship with God have led them to CHOOSE to address their sexuality in the way they see fit. The reason my friends and I remain anonymous in this debate is not because we fear oppression from Harding University—but the exact opposite.  Those who are driving this debate are not allowing us our own freedom, and not creating a “safe place” for us to be honest about who we are and who we want to be.  These people who demand a safe place for themselves are guilty of denying the same thing to us.  At Harding University, we have found many, many, many people who are loving, accepting, nurturing, and inclusive.  Simply put:  HUQueerPress does not represent the majority of gay students at Harding University, and everyone at the University (administration included) is not the grotesque stereotype that HUQueerPress is trying to make them out to be.

–Joe Gay


03 2011

Something powerful

I’ve tried to keep this blog professionally relevant, focusing on global health and development. But I want to share something a little different, and this is the best way I know how–hope you’ll forgive the tangent.

I went to college at Harding University, a conservative, private Christian University in my hometown of Searcy, Arkansas. Harding is strict — you can get kicked out for dancing,* having sex, being gay, or drinking alcohol. The 5,000+ undergraduates are required to live on campus at first, with guys’ dorms and girls’ dorms and a nightly curfew where your RA’s check to see if you’re in your room. Daily chapel is required and everyone must take a Bible class each semester. It’s like Footloose but with more Jesus and a lot less Kevin Bacon.

Except that earlier today, a bunch of gay and lesbian students at Harding spoke out:

We are here to share with you our struggle. We are here to be a voice for the voiceless who are quietly dying inside the walls of our campus. We want you to know us. We are your friends, co-workers, students, family members, fellow worshipers, professors, athletes, and scholars.[…] We are queer. We are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. While the rest of you fall in love with the opposite sex, we share our lives and beds with those of our own gender.

All is not well for us at Harding. Our voices are muted, our stories go unheard, and we are forced into hiding. We are threatened with re-orientation therapy, social isolation, and expulsion. We are told stories and lies that we are disgusting sinners who are damned to hell, that we are broken individuals and child abusers….We have felt the pain of the deep, dark closet, and we are here to announce that we will not stand for it any longer.

That’s the opening statement from HU Queer Press, a group of anonymous LGBTQ students, who are publishing a webzine about being gay at Harding. You can find the first issue, “State of the Gay at Harding University” at their website:

It’s powerful stuff, ranging from the sweet to the visceral. The stories mix courage with self-hatred, love of friends and allies at Harding with hatred for its oppressive atmosphere and teachings. You really should read the whole thing, but here are a few of my favorite parts:

First is this sweet piece from “Dovey” writing about “How I Realized I Like Girls (And Why I’m Surprised I Didn’t Realize Sooner.)”:

When I was13, I, like most every girl my age, had a best friend (we’ll call her Elle.) We spent almost all of our free time together, wrote several-page-long notes to each other that we passed when we met in the school halls, wrote stories about what our lives would be like when we grew up. We loved all the same movies, all the same books, and some of the same music….

I began to realize, though, that every time Elle had a boyfriend (and she had a LOT of them) I got immensely jealous. Even if he was someone who had always been a good mutual friend, I would begin to resent him. It wasn’t just that Elle was spending less time with me, or that I felt left out. I wanted to hold her hand like they did. I wanted her to look at me the way she looked at them. I wanted to kiss her goodbye when we all left at the end of the school day.

Then “C” writes about coming out:

Most of the people I first told just kind of smiled and said “I figured.” And of course they still loved me. Soon I had this great group of people encouraging me. I got enough confidence to finally tell my parents. They too already had some idea that this might be coming, but there was no smile on their face when they said so. “We were afraid of this.” “I’m very disappointed.”

“Z” chronicles his history:

[Age 13] Jeff kissed me… One day Jeff took me in the woods and said that he liked me, like he liked Kathleen. He leaned in and kissed me. I felt more alive in that moment than I had ever felt before. The next day in school, Jeff told the entire locker room that I tried to kiss him and that I was a Fag. I knew what it meant now. I sat alone in the lunchroom for the rest of middle school. I never had one friend from school. I turned to church….

[Age 17] Brad pulled me in the back of the room. He kissed me. I kissed him back. He unbuttoned my shirt and I pulled his off. He took off my belt and got down on his knees. He took me in his mouth and I came. I punched him in the face. I called him a Faggot and kicked him in his ribs. What had I done? God please save me. Take this away from me and I’ll be a slave to you. I’ll never do this again. I want you to take me under your wings and rescue me? Rescue me from whom? ME.

“K” criticizes the “Toxic Teachings” at Harding by highlighting the following course notes for a currently offered class. These were written by a Harding professor:

Certain signs of pre-homosexuality: 1) repeatedly stated desire to be other sex or act like other sex, 2) strong preference for cross dressing or pretending to dress like other gender, 3) strong and persistent desire for opposite roles.

Single Mothers: Cub Scouts and male Sunday school class is not enough to help a boy reach a clear gender identity: the boy must have one salient (good and strong) man who takes a special interest in him – one male chooses him. Men: find those fatherless boys and invite them to go fishing. Play catch with him – especially the quiet boy in the background… the one in the background – he is the one we have to go after.

Seriously? Who’s recruiting who?

“K” also shares notes from a journal entry after a therapy session at Harding:

I need to make this decision. Will I go through with this or not. If so I need to truly count the cost and realize that this will cost me. If yes, that I for sure want to pursue my life as a Godly person with Him above all else:

I would have to see myself as heterosexual.

Every time I am attracted or want to look at another guy I would have to say “No. I am a heterosexual and I do not have these desires. They are not natural.” I would completely have to capture my thoughts, deny them, and never intend to pursue or continue these thoughts.

There’s a lot, lot more. Some amazing introspection, some self-loathing. A little coming out, a lot of the closet, some falling in love. They write a how-to for reading the Bible as gay-neutral, if not gay-friendly. They write about getting called fags.

And they write about the problems they have with “Integrity Ministries,” the fairly new support group for students who “struggle with same-sex attraction.” In some ways, Harding, or at least the people who are associated with it, have come a long way. The creation of Integrity Ministries a couple years ago suggest that the administration at Harding has realized it has a “gay problem” that isn’t going away with denial and condemnation alone, the previous approach. I know that some of my friends saw the inception of Integrity Ministries as a step forward. But taking a tiny step forward from a wallowing pit of homophobia still leaves Harding far short of where it should be.

I really admire the authors for doing this, in part because even writing anonymously, they still face big risks. If someone rats them out they could all get kicked out, and they could lose many friends. And just because they’re gay doesn’t mean they can easily leave Harding. Some students can only afford college with their parents’ support, and some parents will only send their kids to Christian colleges. I guess others stay at Harding because they love the institution despite its flaws and want to go to a Christian school because of their deep faith, and they hope to change it from the inside out. If it were easy and they had no other ties, they’d transfer elsewhere and start a new life with people who love them regardless of their sexuality. But it isn’t that easy.

I sympathize with them because I have mixed feelings about Harding as well. My dad teaches there and I grew up around the school. I went to Harding of my own free will because I wanted to be a missionary. I deconverted during my third year there. The process was a gradual one. The more I studied theology and the Bible and war and history and science (some through courses at Harding but also much on my own) the more my views shifted towards progressive theologies. I maintained an unhappy equilibrium as a liberal Christian with a belief in a vaguely Einsteinian God for somewhat less than a year. In hindsight the shift from fundamentalist belief to liberal belief was driven by an intellectual desire to believe something that was compatible with science and history and critical thought, but the choice to go from liberal theology to discarding my faith in faith altogether was more about choosing my allegiances. In the South, and especially at Harding, the association between that particular Christian tradition and reactionary filth was just too strong for me. At some point I couldn’t stomach being associated with all that was anti-science, anti-feminist, and yes, anti-gay. If it wasn’t clear before you read the HU Queer Press, one reason people get turned off by Christians like many at Harding is that their beliefs and actions cause a world of pain to those they label as sinful.

I have a lot of good memories, and I still love many people associated with Harding — family, professors and mentors, and classmates. I doubt Harding will change much, or fast. They still don’t let women speak in chapel or lead prayers, and you get kicked out for having straight sex too. My hope is more for the students who go to Harding and then move on, that they will emerge more compassionate and less homophobic than they might otherwise have been. Maybe we’ll get a step closer to that if everyone at Harding reads this webzine (probably on their laptops at Midnight Oil since I’m sure they’ll block on campus!).

One last thing: Early on, like many other straight male dorm student at Harding I called everyone a fag — man, don’t be such a fag! I used to be part of that putrid homophobic culture, and for that — to anyone who reads this who I knew at Harding — I’m sorry. It was as if by joking about it we could make “the gays” all just disappear.” But they can’t. They’re there and they’re not going away no matter how hard you pray, and now they’re finding a way to speak out. Awesome. Read it and share it with your friends.


One note: I was not involved in the production or hosting of HU Queer Press, and I don’t know who they are. I just received an anonymous email a few days ago asking me to help with getting the word out since I have a blog.  In fact I think it’s more powerful not knowing because they could be anyone I knew at Harding.

*Update 1: a commenter points out that they’ve never heard of anyone getting kicked out for dancing, and I think that’s right. My apologies for the imprecision — I should have said that dancing is against the rules.

Update 2: I’m tracking who all has written about the zine. If you notice a blog I haven’t listed please mention it in the comments. So far: Hemant Mehta, Political Cartel, Ian Thomas, NWA Equality, Don Gaines, Talk About Equality, Arkansas Times’ Arkansas Blog, Coleman Yoakum, petition, Nelson Shake


03 2011

Evaluation in education (and elsewhere)

Jim Manzi has some fascinating thoughts on evaluating teachers at the American Scene. Some summary outtakes:

1. Remember that the real goal of an evaluation system is not evaluation. The goal of an employee evaluation system is to help the organization achieve an outcome….

2. You need a scorecard, not a score. There is almost never one number that can adequately summarize the performance of complex tasks like teaching that are executed as part of a collective enterprise….

3. All scorecards are temporary expedients. Beyond this, no list of metrics can usually adequately summarize performance, either….

4. Effective employee evaluation is not fully separable from effective management

When you zoom out to a certain point, all complex systems in need of reform start to look alike, because they all combine social, political, economic, and technical challenges, and the complexity, irrationality, and implacability of human behavior rears its ugly head at each step of the process. The debates about tactics and strategy and evaluation for reforming American education or US aid policy or improving health systems or fostering economic development start to blend together, so that Manzi’s conclusions sound oddly familiar:

So where does this leave us? Without silver bullets.

Organizational reform is usually difficult because there is no one, simple root cause, other than at the level of gauzy abstraction. We are faced with a bowl of spaghetti of seemingly inextricably interlinked problems. Improving schools is difficult, long-term scut work. Market pressures are, in my view, essential. But, as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere at length, I doubt that simply “voucherizing” schools is a realistic strategy…

Read the rest of his conclusions here.