Monday, November 24, 2008


I spent my spare time this past weekend putting together some web pages with photographs I think make good desktops for computers. The pages are all linked together. It is easy to download images you like and use them as desktops.

There is an original page of desktops that has been up for years.
A new desktops page with pictures from Spain.
A new page of desktops with some images of capitol building interiors.
A new page of desktops with some autumn colors and leaves.
A fifth new page of desktops with a theme of water and clouds.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Putin and Arnolfini, Separated at Birth?

It it just my imagination, or does Vladimir Putin bear a strong resemblance to Giovanni Arnolfini? Putin doesn't have the cleft chin, and his eyes aren't so hooded, but look at these images and see what you think.

Monday, November 17, 2008

State Capitals

Arthur was studying his states and state capitals last week, and he's still studying those this week.  Sunday afternoon I put together a slide show for him with some photographs we've taken when we visited various state capitol buildings.  I've put these up so anyone can download them. 

  Here is the State Capitols slideshow in m4v format [21.3 MB] (good for iTunes and iPod).

These are huge video files, so even with a fast connection you'll have to wait a few minutes to download them.  Almost all the photographs were taken by me or someone in my family, but there are a few I took from the Wikipedia Commons and a few I took from government websites where the images were in the public domain.  

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Biking to Work Playlist

Well, it's getting cold for bike commuting to work, and I hate riding my bike on icy nights in the dark. So, I might start using my car a bit more in the last few weeks of the semester. I had a cold this past week (I'm still not over it), so I only biked in on Wednesday and home on Thursday.

I thought I would share the bike-to-work playlist I use on my iPod. Sometimes I listen to lectures or podcasts going back and forth (it takes 35-50 minutes each way, depending upon the wind direction and speed, and that gives me time to listen to a full 30 minute lecture). But when I need to hurry I listen to this mix of fast-tempo songs I enjoy. Here is the list of those songs. I've provided samples from the songs, plus links to videos with other versions of the songs for some of the songs. I just thought I'd share some music with everyone.

Balls 4:28 by Sparks from Balls
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) 5:17 by The Arcade Fire from Funeral
Fast Cars 2:27 by The Buzzcocks from Love Bites
Do The Bee 1:52 by Hüsker Dü from Land Speed Record
Go Speed Go 5:34 by Alpha Team from Speed
AirBurst (You Fly) 4:45 by Adam Fothergill - Jaffa Mountain from AirBurst Remixes
Birthday (Tommy D Mix) 6:41 by Sugarcubes from It's-it
Don't Crash 4:50 by Front 242 from Kommando (remix) 12"
Jungle Music 3:57 by Rico w/The Special A.K.A. from The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past
Like An Animal (club? what club) 6:35 by The Glove from Blue Sunshine
Mondo '77 4:57 by Looper from The Geometrid
Monkey Man 3:39 by Toots & The Maytals from True Love
The News 6:12 by Carbon/Silicon from The News - Single
Ranking Full Stop 2:49 by The English Beat from The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past
San Remo 1:48 by Perez Prado And His Orchestra from Mondo Mambo! The Best Of Perez Prado And His Orchestra
Sympathy For The Devil (Soul To Waste) 4:53 by 300 000 V.K. Laibach from Sympathy For The Devil
Visions Of You (Radio Edit) 4:23 by Jah Wobble from Visions Of You
Buckethead 8:45 by Carbon/Silicon from Mind Control
Mighty War Whoop 4:15 by Ken Drakeford from Box Room Sessions
All Join In 3:27 by Ken Drakeford from Box Room Sessions

There are stories behind each song. I remember Beth Buller made a tape for me when I was a freshman in college that had that "Like an Animal" song and some more from The Glove. I should thank Martin Martsch (and indirectly, his brother Doug) for turning me on to Sparks and The Arcade Fire. I learned about Perez Prado listening to NPR years ago. I found Ken Drakeford's music browsing around on iTunes a couple years ago. I should thank Pontus Aratoun for introducing me to Front 242 and Laibach.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Birthday of Baha'u'llah

Today is the Birthday of Baha'u'llah.

To mark the occasion, I've updated my personal Baha'i Webpage. I've also put up some religious materials from several years ago so anyone can have access to my work. Here is a list of what I've put up. Most of these are in html format.

Happy Birthday of Baha'u'llah!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Submit your ideas to the Obama Administration

You can go to the new website and submit suggestions. Presumably, volunteers and campaign staff catalog and index the suggestions, and pass on some sort of summary with representative sample posts to Obama himself.

I've submitted a few of my own suggestions. I might as well share them here.

Suggestion Submission #1. Foreign Aid and Cultural Exchange.

You know Kenya. I've lived there one semester myself, and lived in Kibera, where I understand you have stayed--I had some Luo friends, too. You, better than any president we've ever had, understand the material poverty of the money-poor nations.

The key thing to do is to meet our promise from the Monterrey Consensus to devote about 0.7% of our GNP to international aid to the poorest nations. That aid should be mainly devoted to developing infrastructure, education, and health care provision in the materially poor world. It should be targeted to nations that have the greatest political transparency and show signs of moving toward democracy and independent institutions of civic society.

Foreign aid of this nature should rightfully be considered a matter of national defense, and so we ought to take the increase in international aid from our bloated and wasteful defense budget.
If as part of this policy we establish more American-supported public universities in poorer regions of the world I would volunteer to serve.

As a supplement to this dramatic increase in development aid we should make a massive effort to increase direct public exchange between America and poorer nations. We should be sending 100,000 American high school students and college students abroad each year, and bringing in a similar number of foreign students for cultural and educational exchanges. Thousands more Americans fluent in Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Pashtun, and Swahili, (with friends in the lands where those languages are the native or second language) will be worth more to us in helping America maintain peace and security than tens of thousands of more monolingual soldiers.

Make the foreign exchanges part of the foreign aid increase policy. Send American kids from the poor and violent environments to do a year of education and service in an entirely different environment (orphanages in Zambia, for example), and you can imagine the kind of changes we would witness.

Suggestion Submission #2. Higher Education Affordability.

Make higher education affordable. Establish some sort of target costs of providing higher education and some federal guidelines of fair cost-sharing between the public (we all benefit from having better quality higher education that is affordable in our society) and the college students (who reap more direct benefits than the taxpayers who never go to college or finish their college degrees). For example, it seems to me that costs of college education ought to be split with students paying about a third of the cost of their education and the public paying nearly 2/3rds (with alumni donations and private grants used to fund non-educational expenses). Further, costs of education ought to be indexed to median-full-time-year-round wages of the previous year and tuition at public institutions ought to be set on a sliding-scale.
Public universities and the states that control them work out the details of spending and tuition rates, but the federal government can dictate certain broad principles of how public education ought to be funded and priced. The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and other federal government organs ought to have policies of only giving grants to researchers at universities that follow federal suggested guidelines for pricing education. Only states that follow guidelines in keeping college costs under control ought to receive federal financial aid for higher education.

Costs of college have nearly doubled in real inflation-adjusted terms since I attended college in the 1980s, but median and mean faculty salaries have declined by approximately 11% over the same 20-30 year period. The problem has reached a point where I could earn more money by leaving my job at the University of Illinois and taking a job in the local public school system as a high school teacher! I'm working 50-60 hours each week trying to help my undergraduate and graduate students get a good education, but even though I've been saving 5% of my income for my two sons for their college fund since they were born, I will be unable to afford to pay for more than two years of their college education, even if they attend the university where I myself teach! My salary and our household income match almost exactly the state median year-round-full-time wage and median household income, so I know that most people in Illinois are in a situation like mine in terms of being unable to afford to send their children to college.

State governments are unwilling to make affordable higher education a priority. Please use the federal government to force the state governments into taking action on this issue.

Suggestion Submission #3. Change the Economic Debate.

People in America need to understand some basics about economics and tax policies and government spending. Someone (the president) needs to clearly explain that we as a society want a public sector that protects and empowers us. We are empowered by education, by infrastructure, and by policies that give us freedom from financial ruin (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, national health insurance policies, etc.). We are protected by national defense, by police and fire departments, by environmental standards and various workplace and financial regulations. Just lay it all out; if the American people want a certain level of protection and empowerment they'll need to contribute an average of some percentage of their incomes to public spending, through some mix of property/wealth taxes, income-and-gains taxes, and sales-consumption taxes. When you combine the costs of public services from local, state, and federal governments and look at the total income and wealth of America it seems like about 40% (give or take 10 percentage points) of the national economy needs to be cycled through the public sector of taxing and spending.

Most of the arguments about fiscal policies and taxing and spending are between conservative Republicans who want fewer public services and less protection and empowerment, and are therefore willing to live in a society where about 35% of the national economy gets cycled through the public taxing-spending cycle, and those who want more protection and empowerment, and therefore want 45% to 50% of the economy cycled through the public sphere.

Make it clear that we have a consensus where everyone in the mainstream, from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican agrees that we like economic growth and we want a strong private for-profit sector of the economy to serve as the engine of growth. No one disputes that, but we just disagree about whether that sector of the economy ought to be 30% or 40% or 50% of the national economy. Our differences come mainly from how much empowerment and protection we want from the public sector, and how far we trust ourselves and our private for-profit and non-profit sectors to provide security and empowerment when the government's public sphere isn't doing it.

We need to return to a New Deal style consensus about public spending and taxation in this nation, and so we need to destroy these pernicious myths that there is something wrong with a little bit of income transfer and redistribution of freedom-wealth-income-security from the most fortunate to the rest of us. We need to make it clear that the government is in the business of empowering and protecting, and distributing freedom and opportunity. Yes, there are some inefficiencies in the public sphere, but we can make government efficient and responsive. Taxation can be a good thing. There are fair degrees of taxation. Public spending is a good thing. There are desirable and sustainable levels of public spending. Taxing and spending aren't the problem. The problem comes when taxing is too high, relative to the benefits that are received. Taxation is a problem when the government is very inefficient in delivering empowerment and protection at levels expected from such taxation. Taxing is a problem when so much of the economy is swallowed in the public sector that the private sector shrinks and growth slows down too far. So long as the government is efficient and taxing hasn't ruined the private sector it's okay to tax and spend.

We need to make this clear and understood. It's really basic civics and economics, but the way the Republicans were using the Joe-the-Plumber story and framing the issue as socialism shows that a certain segment of this nation is entirely ignorant of basic concepts underlying our democracy and modern economies. This worries me, as such ignorance leads to ideological fanaticism stripped of knowledge and understanding, and I associate such political attitudes with failures of civil society.

Please, President-Elect Obama, use your position to educate Americans about taxation and some basics of macroeconomics. Help us re-frame the debate about taxing and spending. Help change the poisonous climate of empty hate-filled rhetoric to a situation where people have reasonable disagreements about spending priorities and program efficiencies.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts on election results

First off, I'm happy. I haven't felt this good about a presidential candidate since John Anderson ran for president in 1980, and Obama is probably just as good as John Anderson was. Funny, but four of the best presidential candidates in history were all from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln (1860 & 1864), Adlai Stevenson II (1952 & 1956), John Anderson (1980), and Barack Obama (2008). That's another reason to enjoy living here in Springfield.

There are things I found disappointing. The total voter turnout was much lower than I had hoped. I hear we only had a little over 130 million voters casting ballots, and I was hoping for 150 million. The Senate races were not as impressive as I had hoped. Merky should have crushed Smith in Oregon, but the race was close. Alaska and Minnesota should have gone with the Dems, but a couple days after the elections those races are still close, and the Republicans may win both. I was hoping for Jim Martin to pull off an upset in Georgia, and that didn't happen. I was hoping for the Green Party candidates to make some significant gains in local elections, but I haven't heard anything about this happening. Here in Illinois I was hoping for Democratic Party gains in the 6th and 10th and 13th U.S. House Districts, but Morgenthaler, Seals, and Harper were all defeated. My own very conservative U.S. Representative Shimkus in the 19th District won with 64.5% of the vote, and the Green Party candidate only received 2.1% of the vote. Ah well, at least Shimkus is a nice guy and does well with constituent services. I'm not an ideologue who hates people because of their politics, so I can tolerate politicians I disagree with, so long as they are decent human beings and not corrupt.

McCain's concession speech was touching, and I wish the McCain I saw there (and also saw in his speech at the Republican Convention) had been evident in the campaign. Obama's acceptance speech was moving and exciting. I was hoping to hear him mention Durbin and Durbin's recent loss (his daughter died earlier this week), but Obama didn't work that into the speech. Dick Durbin got Barack in front of everyone at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, and that was probably the most significant step toward this victory. I suppose Obama probably got in touch with Durbin privately. It's probably better to keep such things as private communication between friends, anyway. Thinking about those two, I enjoyed having two of the best senators both coming from my state, and now I'm somewhat worried about who our governor will choose to replace Obama. Our retiring head of our State Senate, Emil Jones was the most likely candidate, or so I thought, but my contacts in the State House tell me this is not as likely as it seemed. Evidently Jones isn't interesting in buying the seat, and the Governor is looking for someone who can give him something in return for the appointment.

I was trying to put the election into a grand historical context. I was thinking of the intellectuals and activists and leaders who have shaped American culture and politics for good, and there could be a long list of people to whom we owe much of what is best about our nation and our political culture. I made a list: Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Morton, Jonathan Edwards, William Penn, Bartolomé de las Casas, John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Oglethorpe, John and Charles Wesley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Claude Henri de Rouvroy (Saint-Simon), Adam Smith, Charles de Saint-Pierre, Robert Owen, Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and so forth. These people contributed their parts into giving us a certain idealism and a good foundation. Then we had people who took in the culture and ideas these people left us, and Abraham Lincoln is foremost among these 19th century Americans who took the good raw material and helped make something glorious out of it. I'd include people like Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Eugene Debs, William James, and W. E. B. DuBois here in this category along with Lincoln. Perhaps Grant belongs in this group as well.
Then, later in the 19th century and into the 20th century another group of great souls and brilliant minds took our nation and its culture even higher. I include among this group influential thinkers from abroad such as Krishnamurti, Gandhi, Alfred Russel Wallace, and then the great Americans such as Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Henry Agard Wallace, Cordell Hull, Eleanore Roosevelt, and of course Martin Luther King, Jr. In more recent years we have have people like John Steinbeck, Linus Pauling, Ken Wilbur, Matthew Fox, Saul Alinksy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and so forth. I am sure Barack Obama belongs with this group. He seems to be one of the bright shining lights of our culture and our national history. He is carrying forward a process of growth and development in our culture and our politics, or so it seems at this point.

Yes, I realize the people on my list were flawed. Some of them were deeply flawed. But each contributed something valuable, or at least they represent something great to me by some aspect of their life or thought. It seems to me we have now elected one of these great souls.

I am also certain that all these people who have embodied or inspired what is best in American politics and culture are drawing from some transcendent process of Providence. Yes, I believe in a sort of supernatural destiny for my country and the planet as a whole. The good that was in these people I've listed is all drawn out of the same source, I feel sure. This country has a role to play, drawing from this same spirit of the age, and we've elected someone who seems to be in tune with this aspect of our national life. So, I'm very glad indeed.

O Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein … Give ear unto that which hath been raised from the Dayspring of Grandeur: Verily, there is none other God but Me, the Lord of Utterance, the All-Knowing. Bind ye the broken with the hands of justice, and crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of your Lord, the Ordainer, the All-Wise.... - from a letter composed by Baha'u'llah and addressed to "Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein," revealed sometime soon after Baha'u'llah's arrival in Akka (in the early 1870s), and incorporated into the Kitab-i-Aqdas (1873).

America is a noble nation, a standard-bearer of peace throughout the world, shedding her light to all regions. Other nations are not untrammeled and free of intrigues like the United States, and are unable to bring about Universal Peace. But America, thank God, is at peace with all the world, and is worthy of raising the flag of brotherhood and International Peace. When the summons to International Peace is raised by America, all the rest of the world will cry: “Yes, we accept.” - Words supposedly spoken by 'Abdu'l-Baha in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1912. (I have no idea if the lecture notes taken in English and used to reconstruct what 'Abdu'l-Baha actually said were ever cross-checked with Persian notes, or if 'Abdu'l-Baha ever reviewed a Persian translation of the English version of his Cincinnati speech to approve it as essentially what he meant.)

Of course, this is just a personal reflection on what is going on. I'm sure religious figures should keep aloof from partisan struggles and the mundane issues of statecraft. That bit from Baha'u'llah about crushing oppressors with the rod of justice might apply to George W. Bush and his desire to get rid of Saddam Husain. I can't know for certain. It might also apply to policies to tax the very wealthy (and over-paid) elites in this nation and use the tax revenue to provide freedom to poorer Americans (freedom in the sense of education, medical care, financial security, etc., as I'm using Amartya Sen's ideas about freedom here.)

One thing I liked about Obama's acceptance speech was that he spoke of the good history of the Republican Party. From its founding until sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s the Republican Party was clearly the party of justice and peace in American politics, and the Democratic Party was the party of racism. But then late in the 19th century the Republicans abandoned African-Americans and embraced ideas of imperialism, and the two parties became about equally mixed bad and good. The great 20th century Republicans like LaGuardia, La Follette, Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower had significant flaws, as did the great Democrats like Woodrow Wilson (a totalitarian and a racist, but a man with a vision of world peace), F.D.R. (who didn't open our borders to European Jews fleeing the Nazis), and L.B.J. (who gave us civil rights and a war on poverty, but kept us in a war in Vietnam he knew we couldn't win because of personal pride). So far, I don't see that Obama has any of these tragic flaws that have stained the presidents who were otherwise admirable.

And so, I see Obama carrying our nation along toward a worthy destiny. I think he belongs in the categories with all these great persons I've mentioned. I'm very glad about this. I think that part of his victory speech where he outlined some of the better moments in our recent national history (as witnessed by Ann Nixon Cooper), and the moments when he gave credit to the grassroots movement that supported him, demonstrate where his mind is (and you can read his two books and see this as well). I am optimistic about what we will see and what we will be able to do with our Obama presidency.

Surgical Education

One of my students has been thinking about surgical education, and so I've been thinking about how to trace the influence of good medical education through to the improved outcomes for patients. I drew this diagram for my student, and thought I'd share it here in my blog in case anyone wanted to comment on it. I have enough friends and family with MDs that perhaps someone will want to discuss this.

My main point, I think, is that patient outcomes are influenced by many things, and the skill of a surgeon, while probably the single most significant influence on outcomes over which we have much control, is probably relatively small in comparison to about a dozen other things over which we have some control. And so, if we want to find the connection between surgical skill and patient outcomes we will need to design exceedingly detailed studies that control for all these other variables.