October 24, 2003

Affirm This!

Posted by shonk at 04:02 AM in Politics | TrackBack

Maybe I've been living in a cave the last few years, but until today I'd never heard of Affirmative Action Bake Sales, which seem to me a good, thought-provoking way to point out the hypocrisies inherent in the notion of affirmative action. To be perfectly honest, I'm not 100% opposed to affirmative action under the right circumstances. If a school's admissions staff thinks they will improve their learning environment by admitting minority students with lower SAT scores over white students with higher SAT scores, that's certainly their prerogative. What galls me, though, is when such choices become law, as I don't think that's the proper role of law and government (which is rather a more involved topic than I'm prepared to delve into at this hour). What's also annoying is that many people refuse to acknowledge that affirmative action is simply another form of discrimination. Which isn't necessarily, in and of itself, a bad thing. Discrimination has become a bad word in modern times, but only because it's been used to categorize a specific type of discrimination. People discriminate all the time: employers discriminate against lazy or uneducated potential employees, employees, when applying for a job, often discriminate against overbearing bosses, I discriminate against bad barbers by not letting them cut my hair (okay, bad example; I've had plenty of bad haircuts) and none of these forms of discrimination is the least bit reprehensible. Every time we make a choice we necessarily discriminate. Once upon a time, it was actually considered a compliment to be said to have "discriminating taste".

Back to affirmative action, what really amuses and saddens me about the whole thing is the notion that it helps much of anybody. Since everybody knows it's going on, people assume that, say, a black doctor got into and stayed in med school because of an affirmative action program rather than his ability more than you might think. Which is wholly unfair to black doctors who earned their degrees on their own merits, but is entirely rational from the perspective of the consumer; he has no access to the doctor's transcript or MCAT scores. If there's even a slight possibility that a doctor isn't as qualified as he should be, a lot of people are justifiably going to risk their lives with someone else. In one fell swoop, a lot of people that were doing just fine (or would have done just fine) under the old system have their accomplishments viewed with suspicion.

I'm also amused by the fact that apparently only certain minorities need the "help" that affirmative action provides. Generally speaking, Asians are over-represented (relative to the general population) in higher-education in this country and generally aren't included in affirmative action programs. Which, if you think about it a minute, basically says that those compassionate folks that made the laws in the first place thought that black and hispanic people are dumber and more helpless than Asian people. So who are the racists, again?

(And don't give me the argument about how Asians aren't discriminated against like black or hispanic people are; aside from the rampant historical counter-examples, my own experience seeing Indians - that's people from the Asian subcontinent, not Native Americans - and Pakistanis get screamed at and called "ragheads" and "terrorists" by irrational xenophobes following 9/11 on my college campus convinced me that that is simply not the case)

As for under-appreciated minorities in the affirmative action sweepstakes, I'm just waiting for the "youth" affirmative action program, making sure that America's universities and corporations aren't discriminating against the young in their applications and hiring procedures. I mean, let's be honest, it's simply not right that I should be turned down for a tenure-track job simply because I haven't had enough time in my short life to complete a 5 year Ph.D. program. Fortunately, though, the young are too busy with totally baffling websites to be a big lobby.

On the topic of Indians and computers (and on an otherwise totally unrelated note), Srinidhi Varadarajan and his team at Virginia Tech (or VPI, for you Virginians) have built a new, cheap supercomputer that ranks in the top five in the world in a month. That's one month and five mil for an 8 teraflop machine that Varadarajan claims is only running at 50% capacity right now, which is pretty goddamn impressive. It was interesting to see that Varadarajan thinks Moore's Law is actually a bit dated and that 35% every six months would be more accurate. Not that anyone should be surprised, but, then again, it can't go on forever unless we wean ourselves from silicon sometime.

To be honest, whenever I get to thinking about supercomputers, Moore's Law, etc., I'm pretty astonished by how significantly and how quickly computers have made an impact on the world. Even aside from potentially profound areas like molecular biology and mathematics and important but more prosaic ones like air traffic control, there is so much you can do from a $400 computer attached to a phone line.

For example, are you concerned that the newcomer to your radical political group might be a fed or a Republican Party spy? Do you harbor secret suspicions that your neighbor like Pat Buchanan? Are you convinced that Ross Perot got Clinton elected in '92 or that Ralph Nader got GW elected in 2000 and want to harass all the people that supported them in your bowling league? In your stalking of the mayor's daughter have you come across suspicious-looking checks from people's whose names appear gravestones in your local cemetery? Then opensecrets.org's Individual and Soft Money Donor Lookup is the place to start. I have to admit, it's rather surprising to see how comprehensive and accurate this thing is (at least for the last few election cycles; results seem to be less accurate the further you go back).

Or, on the other hand, have you not had sex in several years, or never? Then you'll be sure to want to check out these startlingly realistic alternatives to your too-familiar right hand, vibrator or flesh light.

And, finally, if you're an overweight, white adolescent male with serious issues, well, now you've got an audience.

Really, the possibility of these sorts of things is just astonishing when you think about the world 100, 50 or even 30 years ago. Would your grandparents ever have dreamed that this sort of thing would even be possible? Do they realize it even now? The strongest indicator to me is that, if you read science fiction from a couple decades ago, you notice that, by and large, science fiction authors that were writing about times that have by now passed rather overstate the accomplishments of men in that future-past time in virtually every area except computer power. Flying cars, moon shuttles, ballistic ferries, hypersonic trains, matter replicators, you name it, a lot of the things people figured would exist by 2000 are still a long way off, but the computers (if mentioned at all) are consistently anemic compared to our own (aside from the voice-recognition and speech capabilities that proved exponentially more difficult than anyone expected). For example, I remember reading Heinlein's The Number of the Beast last summer and being unable to stifle a chuckle when Heinlein mentions that the Dora, a flying car capable of traveling in 3 dimensions aside from the ones we're familiar with, has what he presumably intended to be an impressively computer memory of 100 megabytes. And this was only written 20 years ago! Anyway, I think this is one of the overlooked benefits of older science fiction: not only does it instill a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, but a sense of wonder at what has been accomplished by man in the last few decades that vastly outstrips the imaginations of even the most wildly technophilic writers of previous decades.

I realize, now that I've more or less run out of things to say, that I've written about three posts worth of separate ideas all into the same post, staying up much later than I had expected to in the process. Ah, well. Such is life.