Thursday, November 26, 2009

Suggestion to Yahoo! Answers

Dear Yahoo:

I was using the RSS feed for Social Science - Other.  I received a million questions a day.  Many were re-posts of previously asked questions to which I had provided thoughtful answers. 

I want to be able to block (1) questions that I have already seen, (2) selected individuals, and (3) questions of a certain length (e.g., less than 15 words). 

I also want to be able to label and subcategorize questions for other potential answerers to see.  One approach would be to offer the thumbs-up-thumbs-down option for questions as well as for answers.  Ideally, if someone clicks on the thumbs up, they will see a drop-down list of reactions, including mine; and if they click on mine, they will see the comment I have added, e.g., "Seems to be a student looking for an easy answer to a take-home test question."  My followers, if any, will also be able to see my filtered list of questions.

I want to be able to automate the provision of those filtering comments.  That is, I want to have a half-dozen of my favorite comments readily available.  I am viewing a question.  I want to tell the poster to do a web search, narrow it down, and come back with a more specific question.  I don't want to have to type that out.  Likewise, I may also want to tell the person that it sounds like a take-home test question, and I'm not inclined to help people do their homework.  I type these into my list of favorite answers; they appear when I'm viewing a question; I select the ones that apply; and I'm automatically on to the next unanswered question.

My list of favorite answers can be partially selected from a pre-provided list.  One favorite answer may include an automatically generated Yahoo! search of the web, responding to key terms in the question.  That is, I want to be able to check a box for "try this search" and, perhaps, to modify the automatically generated search before posting it.

I want to be able to save my favorite answers in paragraph form.  For example, if I write a paragraph to answer a question about the Civil War, or if I see a good answer that someone else has provided (perhaps saved in directory form), or if there's a Best Answer that already seems on point, I want to be able to get to that quickly, and to direct the poster to it, rather than reinvent the wheel.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Definitions of Disability

The Web is filled with references to handicapped people and disabled people and people with disabilities.  But what is a disability?

Iezzoni and Freedman (2008) describe a "medical model of disability" (p. 332) originating in the 19th century. That model, they say, treats disability as a form of illness; and illnesses, in the medical model, are typically diagnosed in individuals and treated by doctors.  Against this, Iezzoni and Freedman contrast the "social model" (p. 333), which considers disability a social phenomenon.  In the words of the Fundamental Principles of Disability (1975) produced by the now apparently defunct Union of the Physical Impaired Against Segregation, "Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society" (p. 3, cited by Oliver (1996, p. 22)).  In other words, there are a great many physical and mental impairments - the need to wear eyeglasses is an example - but not all impairments are treated equally; some result in much more isolation or stigma than others.

Within the social model of disability, Iezzoni and Freedman (2008) favor the definitional approach adopted by the World Health Organization's (WHO, 2009) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF):

The ICF puts the notions of ‘health’ and ‘disability’ in a new light. It acknowledges that every human being can experience a decrement in health and thereby experience some degree of disability. Disability is not something that only happens to a minority of humanity. The ICF thus ‘mainstreams’ the experience of disability and recognises it as a universal human experience. By shifting the focus from cause to impact it places all health conditions on an equal footing allowing them to be compared using a common metric – the ruler of health and disability. Furthermore ICF takes into account the social aspects of disability and does not see disability only as a 'medical' or 'biological' dysfunction. By including Contextual Factors, in which environmental factors are listed ICF allows to records the impact of the environment on the person's functioning.  [I have notified the webmaster of incoherence in that last sentence.]
Iezzoni and Freedman (2008) note, however, that different definitions serve different purposes, and that at present there are numerous legal definitions in use in the United States.  Two of the most prominent definitions they cite are those of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Section 12102(1) of the ADA defines disability as meaning, with respect to an individual, "(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment."  By contrast, the Social Security Advisory Board (2003) says that the Social Security Act of 1956 defined disability as “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration” (p. 3); but this definition, they say, is increasingly subject to challenge.

The Census Bureau is yet another important source of disability definitions.  Definitions used by the Census Bureau in recent years include the definition of "work disability" in the Current Population Survey; the definition of disability in the Survey of Income and Program Participation; and the definition of disability in the American Community Survey (ACS).  Among these and other data sources that have been used by the Census Bureau, the ACS is especially useful for obtaining local data at the city and county levels.  The 2008 ACS Subject Definitions operationalize the concept of disability in a set of related questions posed to survey participants:
Using models of disability from the Institute of Medicine and the International Classification of Functioning, disability is defined as the restriction in participation that results from a lack of fit between the individual’s functional limitations and the characteristics of the physical and social environment. So while the disability is not seen as intrinsic to the individual, the way to capture it in a survey is to measure components that make up the process. The American Community Survey identifies serious difficulty in four basic areas of functioning: vision, hearing, ambulation, and cognition. Described below, the ACS asks respondents about serious difficulty and the resulting data can be used individually or combined. The ACS also includes two questions to identify people with difficulties that might impact their ability to live independently. In the 2008 American Community Survey, there are three disability questions, two with subparts totaling six questions in all . . . . (p. 38).
These various definitions, including especially that of the ACS, will be relevant to further exploration of data on disabilities within the U.S.

Browsing the Cornell University Disability Statistics Website

I wanted to know how many people with disabilities there were in a particular county in the U.S.  I decided to try to answer this on the basis of materials available at Cornell's Disability Statistics webpage.  I hadn't used that webpage previously, but I guessed it would probably have links, at least, to the main sources of data on the numbers of people with disabilities on federal, state, and local levels in the U.S.  In my initial looks at the webpage, I found its layout somewhat confusing.  There also seemed to be quite a bit of material there.  I decided to summarize what I found, for future reference.

The website required me to log in to view its statistics page, so I did.  I wondered where I was, in the grand scheme of things, so I backed out to the main page of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR).  Its research webpage led me to its Digital Commons, which led to its list of research units, which led to its Employment and Disability Institute (EDI), whose collection included a large number of manuscripts from recent years.  This was a bit overwhelming, so I backed up one or two steps and took a slightly different path through the EDI's webpage to its Research page and its Publications page.  The latter looked promising:  it sorted EDI publications into seven areas of expertise, each with its own webpage:  ADA, Accommodation & Accessible IT; Community Inclusion; Disability Benefits and Work; Disability Employment Research; Disability Statistics Research; Educational Achievement & Transition; and International Disability Research.  The Disability Statistics Research link under Publications actually just produced what appeared to be the results of an automatic search.

I went back to the EDI homepage.  This time, I explored the links under the Our Areas of Expertise & Projects heading.  These included ediONLINE; ADA, Accommodation & Accessible IT; Community Inclusion; Disability Benefits and Work; Disability Employment Research; Disability Statistics Research; Educational Achievement & Transition; International Disability Research; and Workforce Development.  Here, the Disability Statistics Research link led, reasonably enough, to the Disability Statistics Research homepage.  It looked like one of those that I had seen before, when I was doing my initial poking around (above).  The main current project shown here was the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics (StatsRRTC), whose purpose was to bridge the divide between the sources of disability data and the users of disability statistics.  This project's homepage pointed to a list of events, such as a free webinar reviewing a statistics report.  I clicked on one of those events, entitled Discovering Untapped Talent for the Workforce of Tomorrow: Strategies for Employing People with Disabilities.  I was hoping it would lead me to sources of information on the topic, but it appeared to be intended just to notify people of seminars that they would typically have to attend in person.

I backed up a step and tried the Resources page instead of Publications.  This opened up links to the Benequal Organization Assessment webpage; the Disability Medicare Wizard webpage; the Disability Statistics page; the Human Resources (HR) Americans with Disabilities Act Tips page; a Disability Policy Primer; the website of the Longitudinal Study of the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program; the Northeast ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] & AIT [Accessible Information Technology] Center; the website for the Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) program; the Person Centered Planning Education Site; the TransQUAL Online website; and the Universal Access New York website.

From those choices, I went into the Disability Statistics page.  I looked through its Statistics and Data Sources pages, but then decided that its FAQs page looked most promising.  There, I gravitated toward its list of Disability Data Source User Guides, with links to the Guide to Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS) (Weathers, 2005); the Guide to Disability Statistics from the Current Population Survey (CPS) - Annual Social and Economic Supplement (Burkhauser & Houtenville, 2006); the Guide to Disability Statistics from the 2000 Decennial Census (Erickson & Houtenville, 2005); the Guide to Disability Statistics from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Harris, Hendershot, & Stapleton, 2005); the Guide to Disability Statistics from National Health Interview Survey – Disability Supplement (Maag, 2006); the Guide to Disability Statistics from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) (Burkhauser, Weathers, & Schroeder, 2006); and the Guide to Disability Statistics from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) (Wittenburg & Nelson, 2006).

To choose among those user guides, I looked at the FAQ that indicated which data sources would be most appropriate for various purposes.  That FAQ indicated that the ACS was best for current data on disabilities, but also that data below the state level would be reported only in the 2000 Census.  Looking at Weathers (2005, p. 3), however, I found that the ACS was supposed to provide data at the county and Metropolitan Statistical Area levels as well.  I obtained some additional confirmation of that by going to the Census Bureau's American FactFinder page, using its Get Data link under the ACS heading, and observing that it did offer data from the 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates.  According to the About This Data Set link for that particular three-year estimate, however, data on disabilities were not included.  Instead, the 2008 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates provided the most recent data set offering estimates on disabilities.  (One-year estimates were available only for local units of population > 65,000, as distinct from the lower limit of a population > 20,000 applicable to the three-year estimates.)  For actual findings, as distinct from estimates, the most recent survey with data on disabilities was the 2006 American Community Survey, with an accompanying 2006 Quick Guide ("quick" meaning a PDF of only 50 pages).

This look through the Cornell Disability Statistics website suggested that the site provided informative access to a variety of helpful materials, and that the ACS in particular would tend to be the starting point for my work in reaching specific numbers about persons with disabilities in a particular county.  The next step in my inquiry was to try to put some of those materials to use in reaching actual numbers.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Religion and Me

I liked some things about being a fundamentalist Christian.  I liked, probably most of all, the camaraderie that you get when you are a member of a close-knit group of fellow travelers, like how you might feel toward other Americans when you're in some remote location abroad.  "You're from the States?  Where?"  "Texas."  "Texas!  I'm from Wyoming!"  "Wyoming!  Alright!"  Like that makes you practically cousins.  That's how it is, sometimes, when you are among fellow believers, in a world hostile to the Gospel.  And then, being a Bible-believing Christian as the end of the world nears, and thinking about what's going to happen when all the believers are raptured.  That was pretty exciting stuff.  And the hymns at Christmas, and the feeling that I had a Friend, and the special meanings in everything.  There were a lot of things to like.

On the other hand, I disliked some things about being a fundamentalist Christian.  I disliked the feeling of obligation to save souls - to harass people about Jesus, in effect, when I knew they had absolutely no interest in hearing it.  I disliked the confusion that I experienced, and that I certainly saw in the lives of others around me, as we tried to reconcile our hope that God was on our side with the reality that, too often, things were just not working out as advertised.  After all the allowances for God's superior wisdom and so forth, the uncomfortable fact remained that we were forever inventing ad hoc justifications on his behalf, as if he were an abusive father for whom we needed to make excuses, lest the outside world find out what a cluster our family life actually was.

I especially disliked the dishonesty of trying to portray the Bible as being consistent when it was weaving around like a drunk sailor, and as being a source of guidance when it was obviously wrong and even dangerous.  I disliked that my religion seemed, historically, to have been on the negative side of everything, as if God wanted us to be dragging our feet and giving people a hard time whenever they wanted to dance, drink, and play bingo.  It was as if God did not want us to acknowledge equal rights for women, or to reject slavery even if St. Paul did condone it, or to understand dinosaur bones, or to inform kids about sex - and so on, ad nauseum.  I disliked the fact that Christians of the sixth century cut off the ears of Christians who disagreed with them, and that Christians of the twelfth century found it important to take Jerusalem from the people who lived there, and that Christian faith seemed to provide an important fault line underlying innumerable other wars and atrocities - dividing Byzantine from Roman Christendom, and Roman Catholics from Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants from Lutheran Protestants, and Missouri Synod Lutheran Protestants from Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Protestants, and so forth.  I definitely disliked seeing how Christians avoided taking responsibility for the assumption of superiority that keeps being used to justify such behavior, century after century.

Lots of Christians would tell me, right off, that their religious practices and beliefs are not like that.  And that's the nature of religion:  keep moving.  Keep 'em guessing.  If something has been publicly rejected as one of the worst aspects of your faith, make sure that you join everyone else in condemning it, and redefine your religion as something that would never behave in such a way.  It's just commonsense marketing.

Liberal Christianity was my case in point:  it freed me from much of the heavy baggage of my fundamentalism.  As a liberal Christian, I could have a much more educated sense of superiority, there in my nice clean clothes on Sunday morning, surrounded by all those other nice-smelling middle-class suburban white people.  It wasn't about the Bible anymore, per se; it was about the undeniable importance of compassion and giving.  These, I think, were the kinds of Christians to whom Bertrand Russell would have been referring, in Britain in 1927, when he wrote these words:

There is another point which I consider excellent.  You will remember that Christ said, "Judge not lest ye be judged."  That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did.
Liberal Christian belief and Unitarianism, with which I flirted after some years away from religion altogether, gave me company in my mild, patronizing scorn for the fundamentalists among whom I had counted myself previously.  Actually, it gave me company, period, as I socialized with other religiously indifferent but socially concerned individuals.  But then, alas, the socializing gave way to subgrouping, gossip, and misunderstanding, and I understood that his would probably always be one of the defining features of the Body of Christ.

I couldn't have said for sure what I was supposed to be believing during this phase.  I do remember that, during a visit to a Unity church, I was struck by the many references to "the Christ in you."  Those references reminded me of the advertisement I was hearing on the radio at about the same time:  "I like the Sprite in you."  Neither, I surmise, was intended on a literal level; but in what figurative sense I should construe such sentiments, I cannot say.  In any event, I sensed that my days as a liberal Christian were numbered when I found myself thinking, during a visit to a new church, that it was a pretty cool place, except for all the talk about Jesus and such.

I never got around to becoming Jewish, except to the extent of being married to a Jewish person whose religion consisted of lighting the candles and singing the prayer, and then dissolving into laughter halfway through because that was all she remembered.  But I picked up a fair amount during my dozen years in New York, half of which I spent at a school where, it was said, the three major religions were equally represented:  Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed.

As far as I can tell, Judaism is more or less like Christianity, on a smaller scale.  You have your extreme fundamentalist conservatives, who make things miserable for themselves and everyone else.  You have your totally assimilated liberals, who don't much know or care what their putative religion is about.  In the middle, you have people who occasionally become overbearingly self-righteous about some particular issue, or who otherwise have a somewhat identifiable culture of their own, but who generally seem like they get along better and are happier to the extent that they can control their religion, rather than having it control them.

Other religions seem, to me, to follow relatively similar lines of thinking.  There are the Brahmins at the top in India, and the upper-class Muslims in various nations, and I imagine I would find, if I looked into it, that there were social classes among the Incas as well; and in all cases, no doubt, the lower-income people are expected to fight and die to defend the upper-income people of their religion - even if they actually have more in common with the lower-income infidels they're shooting at.

Nowadays, I've begun to think that may be the nature of the difference between religion and spirituality.  If you're religious, you'll pick up that gun and shoot that person - your former neighbor, perhaps - because of the religion s/he belongs to.  Or, to put it differently, you probably wouldn't be shooting him/her if s/he were of your own religion.  You may think you would never do that, but then the social pressure and the law and the fear kick in, and after a couple of months of military training, you become like all the others, before you, who said and then did exactly the same things.

It's somewhat different with atheists, who never seem to have armies of their own.  For them, the righteous zeal tends to come out in other ways - in, for instance, the racist e-mails I get from some atheist intellectuals, educating me about the stupidity of Bible-belt rednecks.  This literature is ironically reminiscent of the sacred spam I get from my few remaining Bible-thumper friends.

Spirituality, I think, is not a matter of imagining that your elevated feelings of a "higher" reality are anything more than funky chemicals in your skull.  It's also not a question of whether God exists.  His existence or nonexistence does not make anyone spiritual.  I think, much to the contrary, that it may be more spiritual to simply admit that you don't have privileged knowledge about Truth.  Spirituality, in my working hypothesis, begins with daily renunciation of transcendentalist hubris - with, if you will, the recognition that, if the gods had wanted us to know more, they would not have played games with us; they would have told us plainly.

Ways to Transfer a 20GB File to a Laptop

I had three machines:  a laptop running only Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) and two dual-booting Ubuntu/WinXP desktops.  One of the desktops ran almost exclusively in Ubuntu 9.04, with VMware Workstation 6.5 running Windows XP virtual machines on top.  The other desktop ran almost exclusively in WinXP SP3.  The project at hand:  the Ubuntu 9.04 desktop had a 20GB VMware virtual machine (VM) file, and some other related VMware files.  I wanted to copy those files over to the laptop, so that I could use them as a ready-to-go VM, rather than having to create a new VM from scratch on the laptop.

Before wiping the laptop and replacing 9.04 with 9.10, I had set up a Vista installation on it, and had tried using the Tornado UBS file transfer device to copy the 20GB file from the 9.04 machine to the laptop.  The Tornado needs to run a WinXP executable file, so I was able to do this on the source machine only by running that executable in a WinXP VM.  For some reason, though, the transfer would terminate at the 4GB mark.  In other words, I wound up with only a 4GB file, not a 20GB file, on the target laptop.

I thought about trying to upload and then download the 20GB file, but I realized that would probably take a couple of years.  I didn't have a USB flash drive big enough.  I thought about using a file splitter to transfer it over in several pieces via thumb drive, but that was an admission of defeat.  Besides, I wanted to be able to move files back and forth henceforth, not just this once.

I had two external USB hard drive docks and one external USB hard drive enclosure.  The latter, a Rosewill RX-358-S SLV, had recently died and needed to be repaired or replaced.  It was the only one that Ubuntu 9.04 had recognized.  The two external docks - a Rosewill RX-DU 100 and a Cavalry EN-CAHDD2B-ZB - had been recognized by Windows XP and, I think, by Vista, but not by Ubuntu 9.04.  I discovered, though, that Ubuntu 9.10 did recognize the Rosewill dock, and in passing it appeared that it might also work with the Cavalry.  I had manually swapped hard drives around previously, and was thus now able to copy an earlier version of the 20GB VM from one of those drives, inserted into the Rosewill dock, to the laptop.

If that hadn't worked, there were some other possibilities for the job. Up through Windows XP, you could use something called a direct cable connection, which if I recall correctly could be impossibly slow, depending on which method you used.  Under Windows Vista and Windows 7, you can use Windows Easy Transfer, provided you have bought the special cable.  Both of these methods, like a crossover cable but unlike a router-based network, would require you to manually unplug and replug cables if you brought more than two computers into the mix.

A better way was to use ethernet cabling.  One possibility was a crossover cable for a direct wired connection between the two machines.  I saw somewhere that some network adapters were now able to detect whether it's a crossover kind of situation, and were able to change their connections internally, so you could just use a normal ethernet cable running between the two machines.  Another possibility was to set up a home network using an ethernet switch or an ethernet router.  These ethernet options had the drawback of requiring various kinds of command-line tinkering, which seemed to have failed for a lot of people (including me) who had tried their hand at it but had found it to be dysfunctional in one way or another.

I saw somewhere that smb4k provided a good interface for Ubuntu ethernet management.  I went into System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager, searched for smb4k, and marked it for installation.  It required a bunch of other packages - it is for KDE rather than the Gnome desktop interface that Ubuntu uses.  When I typed "smb4k" on the command line, I got an error message, "Either your PATH environment variable is not set properly or there are the following programs missing on your system:  kdesu."  I checked Symantec for kdesu.  The closest it got was kdesudo.  I installed that, and smb4k started up.  I did like its interface, but I ran out of time to explore it.