Saturday, May 11, 2002

Auction Fever

Well, my laptop is fixed, so I'm posting again from the comfort of the couch.

Christina and I went to an auction today with Martin and Jeanene. Martin's boss had suggested it as a good place to get furniture deals. Martin and Jeanene need furniture for the house they're planning to purchase, and Christina likes a good auction. Me? I thought it would be fun to take the excursion.

Christina required more convincing to go along that I expected. After a very confusing conversation, we determined that I had forwarded her a message that contained two very different discussions. Martin's message about the auction was preceded by a note from Ben lamenting the departure of Ron Wilson, hockey coach. If you read the message without context (as Christina did), it sounded a lot like we were heading to Ron Wilson's estate sale. Christina was less than enthused about bidding on a bunch of sports memorabilia. Once we cleared that up, she was 100% on board.

We met Martin and Jeanene this morning at Dunkin' Donuts and followed them to Northern Virginia, where the auction house was located. There was a brief preview period where we wandered around and looked at stuff before the auction proper began. I was a little surprised to hear the traditional auctioneer 200-word-a-minute style used, but after a while I got used to it.

The strategy they used here was to auction off only furniture (to make room for more stuff) or items people requested to bid on (which made sure that nothing went without bids). Martin and Jeanene ended up with a 1920s-era bedroom suite and a grandfather-type clock. Christina asked for bidding on some carnival glass and a nice wooden box, but bidding on that quickly went beyond what she was willing to pay (although she said the winning bidders still got very good deals). I had the honor of having my request be the last item of the auction -- once the auction assistant realized that I was asking to bid on some old beer bottles, not trying to order a beer from him. The auctioneer held up the beer, asked for a $1 bid, got mine, and then yelled "sold" without taking any more bids. Well, I'm happy.

Martin and Jeanene needed a couple of trips to get all their new furniture home. We helped by transporting a nightstand (or end table or something), which Martin'll pick up later. I put it away in my dining room. Christina put a towel over it to protect it -- ostensibly from spills, but actually if it sits there too long, I might get used to how nice it looks.

Friday, May 10, 2002


Christina and I went to see Spider-Man on opening night last Friday. It was a very enjoyable movie. Only once the movie had started did I realize just how familiar I was with the Spider-Man "myth". Because of this familiarity, I was particularly sensitive to the "liberties" taken in the making of the movie. First of all, having Spider-Man's web shooters be organic rather than mechanical was clearly a bad idea. I mean what's the point about making a big deal of Peter Parker's scientific brilliance if you're not going to have him use said genius to construct web-shooters? "Gee, I'm a science whiz. I think I'll get a job as a news photographer."

Beyond that, though, I can't complain too much. In the movie, he's at Columbia University when he gets bitten by the genetically-engineered spider. Looking through an old comic book history I forgot I had, I discovered he was on a field trip at some weird corporation when he got bitten by the radioactive spider. The venue wasn't important, and the switch in type of spider was probably a smart updating. Interestingly, in Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel's updating of the legend, he gets bitten in an Osborn Industries lab. I've read the first 20 issues of the new book on-line, and it's very well done.

So I guess what felt the most awkward about the movie was other "updating" -- stuff that seemed done to make it seem "hip". For example, Peter Parker is early on seen hanging out in a mall food court. It seemed to make Spider-Man seem "2002" (or, frankly, "1992"), rather than the timeless legend I had in my mind.

Well, as I mentioned, I had this history of Spider-Man (c. 1991) upstairs. Boy, did that disabuse me of the notion that Spider-Man was ever timeless. In the original comic book, at one point Harry Osborn gets strung out on LSD. At another point, one of Peter Parker's buddies comes back from 'Nam and starts having flashbacks. Comic books have always struggled to stay relevant to modern youth. In the old comic book, Uncle Ben lived through the Depression. In the new one, he met Aunt May after spending time on a commune. Times change, the details change, but the movie (and comic book) show that the story endures, and endures well. I'll be looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Separate but Equal

So the Bush administration is making it easier for public schools to segregate students by gender. Arrgh.

I might be able to buy the rationale that the federal government shouldn't be prohibiting the local governments from determining the form of education that they provide. But if you think federalism is the motivating principle for this administration, I hope you're enjoying your medical marijuana. After all, if it's not the federal government's business to encourage or discourage this sort of thing, why are they offering $3 million for pilot programs? Oh, that's right, to encourage it.

So that leaves the real justification:

Advocates, supported by a growing body of research, say encouraging single-sex schools offers the promise of benefiting both boys and girls, some of whom do better in such settings.

First, the obligatory inflammatory racial analogy. If research showed that segregating students by race raised their test scores, should we do it? Of course not.

Dividing up students by gender (or by race) encourages them to think of students in the other school as "the other". OK, great, the boys aren't causing trouble in class to impress the girls. (This is what I heard someone on NPR give as justification for single-sex classes.) So when they eventually encounter the opposite sex outside of class -- after school, in college, in the workplace -- they will act with dignity and restraint? Of course not. They'll be even worse, because they have little experience handling themselves in mixed company. These educators are following the current public school fad of making sure that problems happen on somebody else's watch.

When I was in college, I made sure to end up on a co-ed floor in the dorm. Why? Increased opportunities for debauchery? Not really. In fact, the all-male floors frequently had visits by women -- especially during the drunken weekend parties. Strangely enough, the co-ed floors had a lower incidence of that sort of immaturity.

Look, I realize that many people have had positive experiences in single-sex educational situations. I don't propose that the government step in and prevent private or parochial schools from operating that way. But when the government itself starts dividing people up by gender, it sets an ugly precedent. What's next? If the boys are distracted by the girls -- well, that would only be true of the straight boys and girls, right? Wouldn't the gay boys be twice as distracted in an all-boys school. Follow the logic and you end up with Arundel High School for Lesbians. (OK, maybe not. But doesn't that sound like it could be on Cinemax?)

I've lost track of my main point here, which is that separate schools for boys and girls may be slightly better at teaching math and reading (though I have my doubts). But implicitly they're going to be worse at preparing them for a gender-integrated society.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

A Moment on the Earth

The low posting output lately is due to a glitch with posting to my web hosting service (hopefully, that'll get fixed, I'll get a work-around, or I'll change providers) and the fact that my laptop is in the shop.

I recently finished A Moment on the Earth, by Gregg Easterbrook. This is a long book, but I'm glad I made it through. Easterbrook's main thesis is that the environment is in good shape, but that this is a result of environmental regulation, so we should be interested in more of it. It's somewhat counter-intuitive -- or rather, it shows how counter-intuitive the two main poles in environmental debate are -- "The sky is falling, despite all the environmental legislation that's passed," or, "Everything we've done to clean up the planet has been enough. Let's just leave it at that."

I mention the thesis partially because a simple web search turned up some severe misunderstandings. For example, from this page,

His central thesis is: "...even for all their failings, market forces and a self-interest stake in forests are the best system for assuring responsible behavior, as they confer voluntary reasons to protect the land." (403) By implication, there is no longer any role for governmental regulation?

Hmm, well, most authors don't state their thesis on page 403. Reading the first part of the book, I noticed that Easterbrook expressed his general like of government regulation. In fact, he thought the good example government regulation set by getting results on environmental cleanup could be used to push government regulation in other spheres. The quote above has to do with the superiority of government regulations that make it worth people's while to comply. For example (mine, not Easterbrook's), littering is illegal pretty much everywhere. And, most places, the roadsides are strewn with bottles and cans. But when I lived in Michigan, I hardly ever saw litter of that type. Why? The 10-cent bottle deposit (made famous by Seinfeld).

I also found this page:

He denies such obvious truths as the fact that insects are becoming resistant to pesticides, asserts that "nothing Carson forecast in Silent Spring has come to pass," and boasts of the increase in raptors without noting that this was due to the banning of DDT.

Wow. Let's see. He mentions that insects are becoming resistant to pesticides, and mentions that the increase in raptors happened after DDT was banned.

I'm not quite sure what about the book provokes such strong reactions from people who clearly haven't read it all the way through. I found it to be a level-headed examination of the state of the environment. I didn't always agree with it, but it made a lot more sense than doomsday predictions or the let-'em-pollute crowd.