Saturday, May 31, 2008

Perhaps I spoke too soon

My last two posts addressed my intent to explore the History News Network, a web site that intends to look at politics through the eyes of historians. I've come across this post from three days ago written by Professor Melvin Small. He contends that Obama should pick Hillary as his running mate.

Small points out that "she has run a less-than-honorable campaign and represents the old politics against which [Obama] has railed." Nevertheless, we get the Kennedy-Johnson argument yet again, plus the novel idea that "recent vice presidents generally accepted their meager assignments like good team players" (he does except Cheney from that category). Of course, there is very little in the Clinton pattern that would suggest that Hillary would do that.

And what about the concern that Bill would be unable to involve himself in the running of the government? Small has that covered.
That’s a no brainer. When John Paul Stevens retires from the Supreme Court, Obama could nominate Bill to replace him guaranteeing that he would be kept busy and out of the way.
What a remarkable concept of the United States Supreme Court, that it, the vital third branch of our government, should be used as senior day care, a place to stow the inconvenient. This is nitwittery of the highest order.

I have said before that Hillary is not my candidate of choice, and I believe she represents an older partisan way of running things that we need to try to transcend. That will be tough enough for Obama to achieve without bringing along someone with her baggage. And, for those people who think that Hillary will be content to attend funerals, well, her very popularity argues against that - there would be a lot of pressure to give her something meaty to do, which would inflame the considerable number of people who find her repellent.

And the potential conflict of interest in having a husband rule from the highest bench in the land on matters concerning the vice president (or, if tragedy were to strike, president) is huge. I hope that Professor Small is joshing.

(By the way, I don't think the Clinton-Obama ticket would have been a dream, either. Sometimes styles are simply incompatible.)


What is the IQ of a zombie? Close to 0? Would they be subject to No Child Left Behind? Because, if we had more zombies, we could retain our average IQ (estimated by Lynn and Vanhaven as 97) while propelling the non-zombie population to heights of brilliance, allowing the U.S. to retain its #1 status in the world, woo hoo!

This is not terribly different from current thinking, except the zombies are imaginary. We're going to educate our children to hitherto unimaginable levels of engineering and entrepreneurial brilliance, and the rest of the world can just clear out of the way.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Blogging vs. journalism, there are people doing yeoman work on gathering information, juxtaposing various sources to present a picture that isn't emerging from either the general press or the opinion-mongers. Citizen Carrie at Carrie's Nation is one such, and her most recent post, More Light Reading, falls squarely into that category.

Cutting through the clutter of traditional media doesn't seem all that difficult (they actually make it easy), but it must be, as so few are doing it. This, from Carrie, based on a Detroit Free Press article, doesn't seem hard to grasp:
If I understand things correctly, our nation is in full crisis mode because less than 100% of our students will go on to work in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or "new economy" career fields. We can't even provide enough decent jobs for the top half of the student population, and we need even more students to graduate with top honors?
But these are commonly-held beliefs, that, if we can just get more information into kids' heads, they'll really be well-prepared for the retail clerk and health care aide jobs that we will have for them (I'm not derogating those jobs, they're important, too, it's just not clear to me that four years of traditional liberal arts education is appropriate training, less so rigorous STEM education).

Carrie uses another article as a springboard to discuss the number of students who, for whatever regrettable reason, have no interest in education and aren't going to get any. There are such people, and we pour amazing resources into them for little gain, and most of them go on to get jobs that need doing anyway. Do we really believe that leaving them behind is so bad, especially when attempting to salvage them diverts resources from those who are equipped to take advantage of them? (I hasten to add that I do not see those people as somehow worth less, they're simply people who are not academic in mind or in temperament; forcing them into that box is actually more cruel and insensitive to them. And we need a more enlightened view of adult education, as people can well change their attitude over time.)

The Carrie post has more invaluable links, more than I wish to discuss right now, but it is excellent at moving the discussion from the education of children to the machinations going on to deprive those children of real opportunities. When you read her sources all together, you will be struck by the pathetic inability of learned people to understand the basic economics behind this.

All of our solutions to the job "crisis" come on the supply side. If we can just churn out infinite numbers of well-educated young people, even if there are no jobs left in those fields for them (the demand side), everything will turn out great.

But, despite what the Gates's and the Fred Smith's say, there is no mechanism to balance those things. What we will end up with are garbage collectors with graduate degrees in mechanical engineering, drug store clerks with PhDs in computer science, and so forth.

Some will say that these highly-educated people will create jobs through innovation, and there probably is some slight positive effect there, but there are two problems with that argument. First, how much innovation can we really get from a cadre of marginal students whom we cajole and tutor and mentor into getting that STEM sheepskin? Second, how much of that innovation is truly commercializable (you might be able to sell a new iPod to someone every year or so, but it's unlikely that you can do so every month)?

No matter how many self-interested billionaires tell us that education will lead to magical growth, we are not losing the majority of the jobs we are because we're poorly educated - we're losing them because we cost more. Sending more kids to college at $45K a year is not going to change that, not when the Indian Institute of Technology is charging $750. Believing anything else is to believe in magic, and we do enough of that in this country.

Blogging vs. journalism

If you spend much time reading blogs or commentary, you run up against the question as to whether the burgeoning blogosphere can replace the downward-trending "old journalism." Those starry-eyed with the infinite potential of the Web will suggest that the New York Times and CNN ought to prepare to be pushed aside, while the old-timers will tell you that people in their pajamas can never replace the hard-bitten real reporters.

In my typical fashion, I can't resist pulling this apart a bit. First, I want to define what I think journalism is. I propose the following taxonomy, while granting that there are other ways to cut this:
  1. Reporting
  2. Gathering
  3. Commenting
To me, reporting is when someone goes to an event and writes about it, taking down facts, selecting from them which are most important, then giving the reader an unbiased look at what happened. This is what we read about in an account of a fire or a school board meeting.

Gathering is somewhat more analytical. It can be initiated by the reporting phase, but it involves collection of data from different sources, an attempt to balance a story by incorporating different points of view.

Commenting is the province of the columnist, where the writer formulates an opinion, usually in response to current events, but is not bound by the limitations of the first two categories. In a number of ways, this barely fits within the purview of journalism, but it is still considered a part of it.

Standard journalism is thought to be strongest in the first two categories ("all the news that's fit to print"), the third being somewhat specialized and usually presented as a reward to those who have moved up from the other two. Budgetary cutbacks have made the first a problem, as declining staffs have led to a lessening of coverage of the meat and potatoes meetings and hearings that have provided the raw information. More of the emphasis of newspapers and magazines has shifted to the second category, with the working of sources to flesh out the raw news (wherever it's being collected).

Commenting seems to be increasingly popular; we even have whole networks (Fox News) which are unabashedly slanted in a particular direction. The politicization has been so pervasive that journalism, which after Watergate was one of the most respected institutions, has become perceived as inevitably biased and, thus, less respected. What I have called gathering is parsed by advocacy groups to "prove" that there is a slant (but is more often open to the charge of laziness).

As "old" journalism goes through its problems, blogging is on the rise. It is quite obviously big in category three activities, advocacy being the reason most blogs exist. Basic reporting, with some exceptions, is not strong in the blog world, self-selection providing a real limitation (there are no assigned beats, so one has to hope a blogger will decide a park board meeting is worth attending, then write about it in a relatively unbiased way). News gathering is especially weak, since very few bloggers have an interest in basic leg work, and they don't tend to have the contacts to present multiple sides of an issue; plus, even-handed views are not as popular among blog readers (it's a lot more fun to read fulminations against granting any H-1B visas than to read someone questioning what the "right" number is).

So the current state of things is: In reporting, traditional media is still stronger, they still tend to cover things and provide the raw material for the other two categories, but money is starting to limit that. Blogging is highly unlikely to take up that slack.

In gathering, old media is trying to do more of that, but it often comes off as poor, particularly when "fairness" requires 50% coverage of two sides of an issue. This leads to equal space being given to, for example, evolution and creation science, even though the vast preponderance of scientists fall on the side of the former. Blogging is probably at its weakest here, though there are the occasional notable exceptions (like Citizen Carrie of Carrie's Nation, who has done some wonderful posts that have pulled together several sources; she has a point of view, so she's got one foot in the category 3 camp, but, at her best, she has provided valuable work - I'll have a subsequent post that talks about her latest).

As for commenting, old media is moving very quickly in that direction, the risk being that the first two categories will suffer as readers forget what "objective" is supposed to mean. Many reporters now have their own blogs, and figuring out whether something they've written is the result of objective judgment or comes out of their own basement can be a challenge. Bloggers have inhabited much of this space, generally making their biases clear, but there is little to no editing and quality can be uneven.

Therefore, the problem is not that blogging is supplanting "real" journalism, it is that the old-liners are compromising what they do best to move to the hot, opinion-fueled writing of the moment. The future is a bit frightening, as less basic reporting feeds the other categories, and we devolve into smaller circles of reading only those with whom we already agree. We end up absolutist and ignorant, even more so than now.

I don't have a solution except to continue subscribing to traditional media, a daily newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine (though TIME is testing me with its thinness, both in size and coverage). [Note: I'm not including television news as traditional media, it's simply hopeless.] Otherwise, the devolution I fear will continue, and we'll have more and more words about less and less, something that should scare anyone who cares about publicly-held information.

Friday, May 30, 2008

We? Stupid?

In my preceding post, I mentioned that I was on my way somewhere else when I came across Gil Troy's post. Where I was going was the blog by Rick Shenkman on History News Network. HNN is a site by a number of historians who plan to comment on politics (obviously I wasn't awestruck by Troy's post), but their goals are good:
To expose politicians who misrepresent history. To point out bogus analogies. To deflate beguiling myths. To remind Americans of the irony of history. To put events in context. To remind us all of the complexity of history.
So HNN is worth checking out, and I'll be taking a closer look in the near future. In particular, I'll be reading the "sub-blog" of Rick Shenkman, which is titled Just How Stupid Are We?, and is connected to his new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. Since I often marvel at how decidedly ignorant Americans choose to be, I'll be seeing if Shenkman, an investigative reporter and history professor, offers new insight (I hope he can get names right in the future, as his current post misspells Gwen Ifill's name).

Different frames

On my way somewhere else, I ran across this blog post by McGill University history professor Gil Troy at History News Network. His premise is that historians should defend the recent comments by Hillary Clinton that referenced the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy:
Clinton was responding to a question from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader editorial board about calls for her to drop out of the race.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just, I don't understand it," she said, dismissing the idea of dropping out.
[She subsequently "apologized":
"The Kennedys have been much on my mind in the last days because of Senator Kennedy, and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever."
Mark Liberman at Language Log goes through the quality of her apology here.]

Troy contends that Clinton's original statement was "not only benign, it was precisely the kind of thing historians do all the time." He goes on:
Historians frequently refer to previous incidents to explain current behavior. To perceive hidden agendas in such analogizing is unreasonable. True, Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated that June; but he also was running in a race that remained wide open that month too. Senator Clinton was in no way calling for an assassination or warning of one. Simply writing that previous statement emphasizes how absurd the charges are. Analogies by nature are selective. The analogizer has the right to pick or choose within reason, as Senator Clinton did in this case.
He does allow that there has been "a long list of Clinton curveballs, sleights-of-hand, manipulations and lies," but tells us that this current example doesn't qualify. As it turns out, the current comment, that she has made previously, is seriously misleading given the relative length of the campaigns.

More to the point, though, is the frame in which the statement was made. It may be defensible when made by a historian, but Hillary doesn't live in a world of historians. She's a politician, and her remarks will invariably be taken in a political context.

For Troy to say that "analogies...are selective," that "the analogizer has the right to pick," ignores the reality of the politics of a campaign. Analogies are chosen by the speaker, but are heard and evaluated by voters and reporters. That's the frame in which campaign statements are made, and all the historians in the world aren't going to change that.

Th Th

I was listening to the Cubs game last night on WGN 720, and Pat Hughes, their fine announcer, said that Colorado Rockies outfielder Seth Smith was the only name he could think of that ended in two "th" sounds (he opined that an impaired person might say Garth Brooks that way).

I don't think he was trying very hard, since he forgot the undoubtedly vast population of Elizabeth Smiths out there. Faith Smith may also mind being overlooked.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


This is the 200th post of the year, a huge increase from last year's 8. While 200 is nothing to the prolific Andrew Sullivan, who has already written 215 this week (that's a Sunday to Saturday week), I'm pretty amazed. When I decided to write at least one post a day beginning January 1st, I expected to come up short once in a while. But here I am.

While I won't do an analysis of the posts, I will link to #100 from all the way back on March 19, a little essay casting aspersions on the aspirations of economics to be regarded as a science. Still holds up pretty well, I think, though I may have minimized economics' value as a branch of political philosophy, which it is, while I still criticize its centrality to American decision-making.

Five small comments

I've got nothing big to say, I'm feeling a little played out right now. Perhaps I'm in something of a "blogpression," but I just haven't been really into this for several days. So today I'm going to kick back, link to a couple of good posts, make some negative comments on some other things, and regroup.

1) Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast expresses my sentiments about the Scott McClellan revelations precisely in Scott McClellan's Lee Atwater Moment. I don't know that we'll ever quite understand the trance of those around 43, the man- and girl-crushes that blinded rational people to his willingness to sell out the ideals of the nation he purports to love, but Jill at least describes where we are.

2) Dunkin' Donuts has stopped running an on-line ad because of complaints that ever-perky Rachael Ray was wearing a Muslim-esque scarf. Apparently the perennially-addled Michelle Malkin led the charge, believing that Ray was wearing a kaffiyeh, and so might be confused with Yasser Arafat or other jihadists. Are people insane?

3) Northwestern University graduates, showing a keen appreciation for the realities of the world they're about to enter, are unhappy that their commencement speaker is Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago. I'm not a big fan of Daley, as I believe that his administration's corruption is not, as he chooses to present it, totally disconnected from him. Added to his imperiousness, his behavior is not all that laudable.

But that's not why students are unhappy. They want more of a "name," an Obama, a McCain, or even someone with the wit and insight of last year's speaker, one-note sitcom actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. One telling comment: "NU made a mistake and shafted the seniors on the 150th commencement," Weinberg senior Rachel Gandell said. "I expected a lot more." That's right, Rachel, you're entitled to someone way cooler, and you've been cheated.

4) Speaking of Northwestern, their women's lacrosse team won its fourth consecutive NCAA title this past weekend. It's an accomplishment, to be sure, but a fairly minor one given the fringe status of lacrosse in this country. To watch local media, though, you would have thought it a truly big story; every station and newspaper had reporters and camera crews out to welcome the team back to Evanston. And it's good they did, because, if the media hadn't been there, apparently the team would have been alone. The videotape showed almost nothing resembling a crowd other than "journalists." It didn't seem the campus was exactly galvanized with excitement. Why should we be?

5) Sports coverage hasn't exactly covered itself with glory in motor sports, either. Sports Illustrated, which has taken to running frequent book excerpts in lieu of feature stories, has decided that Danica Patrick, cover girl and swimsuit model, is the main focus in every possible open-wheel racing story. In the current issue, the winner of the Indy 500, Scott Dixon, gets a postage stamp-sized photo, barely visible under the two half-page spread of a mad little Danica preparing to confront the driver she believes knocked her out of the race (the on-line story has no photo of Dixon at all).

I understand that Patrick offers some icy glamor to a sport desperately scrabbling for attention, but she really doesn't have to be the focus of every story. If Indy car racing is in such trouble that they have only one celebrity, one with only one career victory, then it's time to pull the plug. No sport can be healthy that relies on one thread for interest, and I include horse racing there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

War and peace

John McCain, whose fame is based on his personal story as a serviceman and a prisoner of war, is fighting with Jim Webb and Barack Obama over Webb's bill to extend the GI Bill to provide enhanced educational benefits to our veterans (and one does wonder if McCain is sublimating his well-known temper into snottiness, not a quality that will serve him particularly well, I should think).

There are reasons to be against the bill as it stands; Congress couldn't resist the temptation to throw more spending into it, and I am growing increasingly tired of these add-on bills. It seems to me that one bill should be for one thing, another for another, though I understand the incentive to provide political cover. But I find it distracting and tiresome.

McCain, however, is against it because he contends that giving full educational benefits after three years will hurt retention, that veterans will come to the end of their tours and get out because they now have a chance to go to college that they wouldn't have had before. The Webb side contends that it will help in initial recruitment, which makes good sense. So it is possible that, overall, the Webb bill will lead to less-experienced servicemen.

But the alternative is pretty unpleasant, McCain apparently wanting to use desperation as a re-up tool. Make the GIs stay in by not giving them anywhere to go, that seems to be his "plan."

More damning, even, is what McCain fails to understand: The greatest deterrent to retention is not educational benefits, but WAR! It's risking your life on foreign adventuring that causes you not to want to stay in, the possibility of maiming or death.

And that's what McCain is offering, a war to "victory" (whatever that means) in Iraq, a retention-killer if ever there was one. That he can't see that, or thinks we can't, is what gives me a frightening suspicion that he really will be Bush 3rd term.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

If you build it, they will come

In this Web 2.0 world, where every comment is equal to every other, and we "create" our own entertainment environment and share it with everyone else, the level of commentary and thought is bound to decrease. This is why I don't post on every ludicrous web comment or letter to the editor; there are just too many, and there is too little logic or rationality behind them.

Occasionally, however, we see one that exposes a larger way of thinking. A letter published in Sunday's Chicago Tribune:
I had to comment on your May 20 editorial "Pump pain." The premise of your editorial is flawed. You sound like Al Gore speaking when you say, "In an age of global warming, high prices are partly a blessing."

I do not believe there is any global warming whatsoever. I think you are giving the human race too much credit. And to say the higher the prices the better is just crazy thinking.

I know you base that statement on your belief global warming will kill us all. Get real. I agree we have to stop paying the Mideast for oil. If the market creates high prices based on global demand, then we should be drilling for more oil in the United States, and building more refineries. (And paying ourselves.)

I am of the belief there is more than enough oil in the world to carry us to the next energy source.

New energy will come some day and that will be great.

But in the meantime let's use the oil we have and not look for ways to tax the U.S. and world population on a hoax called "global warming." It's just silly.
There's a lot here, and I'm going to bypass most of it. There are people who don't believe that there is any global warming, and people who believe there is, but it's part of a natural cycle, and that man's actions have nothing to do with it. I don't think the facts support either view, but some people simply won't believe something until they're required to.

The letter's ignorance of economics, the belief that we can find enough oil in the U.S. and build sufficient refineries, so prices will inevitably be held down, is awesomely uninformed. One needs only point out that China will still be willing to pay higher prices, so the oil we find will still be sold there...why bother? Reality won't sway folks who think like this.

No, the key to this thinking is in the paragraphs near the end. The writer believes that there is "more than enough oil in the world," that "new energy will come some day."

This would be hilarious if it weren't about such an important topic. This is the end result of the Harry Potter, Field of Dreams school of thought, that magic will occur and solve our problems. New energy will come, zapped into existence by use of a magic wand, and it will come in time to solve whatever difficulties we might have. If you just believe that there is enough oil, regardless of how much there actually is, and if you believe that a new source will arise, regardless of the incentives that are provided, then everything will be OK.

That may be comforting in a kind of, "don't worry, Apollo's chariot can't fall out of the sky," way, but it's a hugely irresponsible approach to living a life or running a nation. Laissez-faire works until it doesn't, but when the doesn't side has such potential dire effects, it is a mark of profound stupidity to wait around to see what will happen.

Dancing with illogic

Fire Joe Morgan (FJM) is one of those web sites that gives snarkiness a good name, as it takes very humorous shots at various forms of sports reporting. It gets its name from their desire to see the remarkably uninsightful baseball commentary of Hall of Famer Joe Morgan off the air, a desire as yet unfulfilled. But they have gone beyond deconstructing the inane Internet chats of Morgan, and have served as a check on ignorant sports commentary wherever they can find it.

Rick Morrissey is a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune who has generally struck me as workmanlike; while he's not going to make anyone forget Red Smith or Joe Posnanski, he generally offers up reasonably interesting columns and only occasionally gets really stupid (though he has a huge blind spot when it comes to using statistics to enhance our understanding of sports, being from the tobacco chaw and grizzled veteran school of talent evaluation).

If I'm going to write a post based on a Rick Morrissey column, I feel compelled to jump over to FJM first to make sure they haven't already co-opted me. So when I read Morrissey's offering from yesterday, titled Floored by dance revolution, I went to FJM and was horrified to realize that they had written about him. This takes away a post from me!

Relief was at hand, though, because Ken Tremendous of FJM was writing about Morrissey's lame Sunday column, concerning the use of instant replay in baseball, and not his lame Monday column, about "Dancing With the Stars" (DWTS). So I can still jump in.

The column begins:
I have never watched "Dancing With the Stars." If I were to die today, I would consider that among my major accomplishments, along with never having watched "American Idol."

I don't care to watch people dance, I don't need a TV show to tell me who's a talented singer and I don't want to take part in the vapid conversation about which judge has it out for which contestant. Feel free to call me Mr. Sunshine.
One hopes that Morrissey has more accomplishments than not watching a show he doesn't like. But of course, that's not his point; as we've seen in countless columns of this type, he is about to criticize the very thing he's proud of knowing nothing about. In other words, ignorance is not going to prevent him from writing a cheap, easy holiday weekend column.

Rick, no one's trying to make you watch or listen to things you don't want to partake of (and "vacuous" is probably a better word than "vapid" here). But I'm sure you have a point here.
But Mr. Sunshine does understand when he is fighting a losing battle, and this would be one of them. Any silly ideas I might have had about sports being king in this country have been trampled under the feet of people doing the cha-cha-cha.
Now we begin to get to the point - sports is supposed to be king in this country, heaven forbid we allow Americans to decide for themselves what they want to watch or enjoy.

My personal note here: I have no interest in American Idol, so I don't watch it. I did see this past season of DWTS, as I was kind of intrigued by this group of stars. And you know, it wasn't totally bad. Yes, there's way too much filler, though not as much as in the last "two minutes" of any basketball game you might see, but it is interesting to see the development in just a few months of amateur dancers working with some top-flight professionals. I'm not sure it's a must-watch in a non-strike environment, but it has some entertainment value.

And had ballroom dancing been added to the Olympics, which could still happen, Rick would have to deal with it as a sport (I don't particularly want to see it there, but it is undeniable that Cheryl Burke and Derek Hough are athletes of a sort).

Jason Taylor is one very smart man. You sports fans out there might think that being an NFL player is about the best thing that can happen to a man. But Taylor obviously has been paying attention to popular culture. It explains why he recently chose to appear on "Dancing With the Stars" rather than participate in the Dolphins' organized off-season workouts. His decision incurred the wrath of Dolphins Vice President Bill Parcells, who believes a star defensive end should be working with teammates on football and not with "Dancing" partner Edyta Sliwinska on the fox trot.
Now we get to the crux of the argument. The legendary Bill Parcells, certified tough guy, so tough he makes sportswriters and sportscasters swoon in appreciation of his he-manliness, Parcells doesn't want one of his players dancing eight hours a day. He'd prefer if Taylor, in his own words, was sitting on the couch smoking a cigar during the off-season. Or maybe he'd like it if Taylor was engaging in some of the less-savory activities in which NFL players engage in their time off.

And now we wander off into the kind of false dichotomy so dear to Morrissey's thinking:
I have no numbers to back me up, but I believe as many people now know Taylor for his dancing as his six Pro Bowl seasons. Twenty million viewers watched gold-medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and her partner beat Taylor-Sliwinska last week. Taylor wants to be an actor someday. What's the best way to get attention from Hollywood — with your helmet on or your shirt off?

All sorts of TV viewers saw Jerry Rice dance into the finals of the show last year and, upon hearing he had played football, wondered whether he had been any good. Same with 2006 "Dancing With the Stars" champion Emmitt Smith, who we're told could run the ball a little bit in his day.

If Rice were to walk down Michigan Avenue, he might have equal numbers of people wanting his autograph for his dancing prowess as for his football prowess. It seems a little silly that a man could be the best receiver in NFL history and a generation of children will know him for his burgeoning mamba skills. But that's the world in which we live, somewhere between endearingly goofy and stupefyingly shallow.
[I won't quote any more of Morrissey's column; it goes on in exactly this vein for a while, spinning together Howie Long, Joe DiMaggio, Keith Hernandez, and, in illogical non-contrast, Michael Jordan (you can't write a credible column in Chicago sports without mentioning Jordan), all to make the same point.]

Rick has already expressed his point, that the irreducibly important and significant world of sports is too pure, too holy, to be tainted by fame in other arenas. It's "goofy" or "shallow" to see Jerry Rice as anything other than a great football catcher, even though he can't be one of those any longer. Joe DiMaggio should have been consecrated as a man who got at least one hit in 56 consecutive games, not reduced to selling a coffeemaker.

Again, this is a false dichotomy. If Jerry Rice had not been on DWTS, then, as he walked down Michigan Avenue, he would be recognized by some people as a great wide receiver, and by others, not at all. It's not that the bright light of his fame has been transferred, it's that it has been expanded. Rick may not see DWTS as a proper vehicle, but it truly does not detract from the records Rice set. Jason Taylor would not have been recognized by most people, even football fans, who have only seen him in pads and a helmet - now he is.

And these outside events are actually positive for their sports. Do we think that more people won't be paying attention to Jason Taylor on the gridiron this fall, wherever he ends up playing? Helio Castroneves was a talented race car driver who no one but hard core fans cared about; now he is a DWTS winner, and has attracted all kinds of fans (even "grandmas") to his sport. This is a bad thing?

What Rick is trying to do is to aggrandize the field to which he's given his life. Sports is so much more important than dancing, or doing commercials, or any of these other things that athletes do, and that justifies the choice of it as a career. Great, classic men like Bill Parcells have given their lives to it, so it must be important.

But sports is every bit as much fun and games as DWTS or American Idol, and shouldn't be taken any more seriously. Jerry Rice was a cog in the big entertainment machine, a skilled, hard-working cog, but a cog, and now there are other pass-catching cogs. So Rice has moved to another station on the assembly line, and he did well there, as did Taylor and Emmitt Smith.

I love sports, I spend probably too much time watching them and reading about them, but I am never unaware that they have virtually no importance. They are entertainment, nothing more, they do not represent the true triumph of the human spirit or whatever pap is fed to us at the beginning of each telecast. Sports is equivalent to DWTS and American Idol. We do not elevate one by running down the others.

Monday, May 26, 2008

We remember

To my dad, who didn't see combat but did have to worry about the bombs hitting London, then had only 19 more years after getting home, and his brothers, and all the young men and women who have died, or been injured, or, at the very minimum, had the arc of their lives disrupted by the need to serve this nation, we remember, and we value, and we honor.

Would that we would never go to war for anything less than the most vital interest, that we would see it as a last resort, that we would not glorify it as a test of strength, but recognize it for what it is. May we set the bar for going to war as a severe test, not just something we do as an alternative policy.

But most all, we must remember.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A farewell

I like ballet. There, I said it, I do. I didn't hate it before, but, when the wife started taking me to the Joffrey Ballet ten or so years ago, it's not something I would have gone out of my way to see.

I do have some history with it, as my mother took my brother and me to see Rudolf Nureyev many years ago, something that is more impressive to me for having done it than in any particular memories of the occasion. But, despite recognition of the great precision and artistry, I really didn't get into it.

Now, however, though not a balletomane, I do enjoy attending three or four times a year. Every so often, the Joffrey does some outreach to their subscribers, offering something extra, and that's usually fun - it's always cool to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Yesterday, they held a subscribers' brunch, which included the chance to sit through a rehearsal.

I won't ramble on through my thoughts, because I know very little about the dance. I enjoy the vocabulary, and it's great fun to see the artistic director go through a routine, then to see the company execute it.

What struck me was the recognition of what great athletes these dancers are. I basically knew that from watching the dancing, but I didn't know their schedule so well.

A few years ago, I took on one of the classic challenges of running, the 24 X 1. This consists of running one mile in each of the hours of the day, starting in the 12-1AM hour, finishing before midnight. This is surprisingly difficult, not so much because of the running, but because of the time in between. The go, rest, go, rest, etc. pattern is hard to sustain (and it is a lot of showering).

So the dancers yesterday had a schedule like this: 11:00 - the rehearsal we attended, and it struck me as pretty tough. They start with barre work, which is not overtly athletic but can be challenging. By the end, however, they're doing some major leaping about (that's my technical term - for those who care, there were some jetes and glissades and pirouettes and the like).

Then at 2:00, a performance. I presume there was some re-warm up before that. Then, another performance at 7:30, and many of the dancers had to participate in all of it. I have no idea how one stays loose over 11 hours of rehearsing, performing, stretching, and so on. I guess that's why they're the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet.
Oh yes, the farewell. The Joffrey is a community of dancers, no one is really supposed to stand out. But that never happens, and today we said goodbye to Maia Wilkins, who has been something of a prima ballerina with the company. She's been with the Joffrey since 1991, and has done some lovely dancing over the years. The circumstances of her departure are a bit muddled, but her send-off has shown due recognition of the esteem, even love, with which the audience has regarded her.

She leaves with her husband, Michael Levine, and her long-time partner Willy Shives (who will be moving to the non-dancing side of the company), and they will all be missed. It's always sad to lose people we've enjoyed, whether it's someone we work with or someone we watch on a stage or a diamond or a field, but it happens; I wish them all well.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fred this table...for the hour

Charlie Rose interviewed Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, last night. Smith has been rumored as a possible cabinet member in a McCain administration. But I don't want to talk too much about Smith, except for an exchange near the end of the interview.

I want to like Charlie Rose without reservation, really I do. His show, for the most part, remains free from the cross-talking mess that most other discussion shows have become (as if we should take John McLaughlin as our model). Charlie tends to ask pretty strong questions about foreign policy, trying to delve into the relationship of the U.S. to the rest of the world.

But, as I have pointed out before, Charlie can be pretty credulous about economic matters, especially when he hosts business leaders. Now I'm sure that I'd be pretty impressed if I were sitting at a table with Smith, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, maybe a little cowed, but Charlie should have enough experience not to let that happen. But it happens every time.

It's no surprise that Fred Smith believes we should increase our visas, that we should upgrade our secondary schools, that we should support maximal globalization however we can. However, for some reason, I continue to expect better from Charlie. Instead, he cackles some inanity and quotes Tom Friedman.

Actually, he misquotes Tom Friedman in a revealing way. He tells us that Friedman believes we should attach visas to all diplomas earned by foreign-born students (and Smith readily agreed). What Friedman actually wrote: "I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country — in any subject — should be offered citizenship." (This is from May of 2007.)

I've written about this before, I will again, and I want to keep this post brief, so I'll pick up on just one thread. Friedman's point is actually more supportable than that of Rose and Smith. I don't think we have the right number of foreign students coming here to go to school, mainly because we've provided some perverse incentives to universities that make foreign students more attractive. That there are foreign students knocking Americans out of slots in public universities, when the American families have helped support those institutions through tax dollars, in the name of mostly spurious diversity, seems wrong.

And I don't agree with Friedman about the "any subject" part; we don't need more medieval history scholars, wherever they come from. But allowing truly talented people to immigrate here does improve this nation, as long as we're being pretty stringent on the definition of "truly talented."

But to go further and offer visas to every college graduate is a policy of nonsense. I have reservations as to the extent that we're educating the world, especially when we are providing that education to the very people who will be competing with us. If we want to remain competitive, a positive step would be to restrict the granting of diplomas (I'm not arguing that we should eliminate that, just that we need to work harder to determine an acceptable number).

Perhaps when we guarantee a good job to every existing college graduate, maybe then we can confer a visa with the diploma. Until then, let's not hand an additional benefit to the foreign-born with no concomitant benefit to the taxpaying American. Either that, or insist on reciprocation: Let our students pay $750 for each year at Friedman's fabled Indian Institute of Technology, then give each one of them an Indian visa. Then we can start talking.

Friday, May 23, 2008

And one I forgot...

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, offers a "cure" for our "chronic recession," namely, that we should finance a massive rebuilding of our infrastructure. First, I am gratified that someone recognizes that our financial problems are long-term and structural, not just a matter of some technical formula that blurs reality.

Second, I agree that we need to rebuild our infrastructure; we have let that slide for far too long, adding to the debt that we expect future generations to pay. However, I think he minimizes the political problems here; I guess Professor Reich has never lived in Chicago. If he had, he would know that the problem isn't that government can't spend money wisely, it's that they tend to give too much of it to the wrong people. In my city, infrastructure contracts are the surest and easiest way to divert public funds into well-connected hands, which creates a certain, oh, mistrust on the part of those who ultimately pay.

Some links

A busy day today, so I'll just provide some links of interest with minimal commentary:

1) Steven Pinker writes interesting books on language and cognition. They're pitched at the general audience, and they're full of pop culture references and links to current research, but not at a highly technical level. So little is really known about how the brain works, particularly with respect to which aspects of it are hard-wired through evolution and which are flexible, able to be shaped by environment, that there can be huge controversy over each of the schools.

Such is a current dustup over bioethics, as Pinker responds to a report from the President's Council on Bioethics, then becomes subject to criticism himself (article here containing links to the original report and more commentary).

I won't wade into the specifics today, but I worry when someone who is strong in one field starts using that reputation to make claims in another. That's not to say I disagree with Pinker here, just that there's a danger of his becoming another Chomsky, whose controversial views have overshadowed his groundbreaking work in linguistics.

2) Kevin Drum writes a week ago about the trouble that the conservative movement has found, that it has exhausted itself and needs to find something new. Ezra Klein argues that "the moment isn't providing the problems" that conservatives need (apparently feeling that life is a matter of faddish problems that arise, and one side or another is positioned to deal with them). His conclusion is that, once the old problems re-emerge, conservatives will once again be in the ascendancy.

I hope they're both wrong, that we see Americans come together to fix problems that are real, that are pervasive, that won't go away when the media gets tired of them. Medicare and Social Security, competitiveness in the face of foreign efforts, lack of affordable health care, global warming, reduction in the supply of petroleum, even a definition of what this nation actually is and should be - none of these are fads, to be dealt with by whichever party feels like dealing with them. We need all hands on deck working on these.

3) Hank Williams writes about how the Internet is contributing to a lack of focus, tying that to the ineffectiveness of advertising. It's certainly true that, if you see one ad a day, you tend to remember it; if you see a thousand, you don't remember any. And we see more than a thousand, just look around. One certainly has to wonder how many of the ad-supported sites and blogs will survive when they run up against people's need to eat.

4) Tom Friedman continues his new-found concern about the state of America, citing the power we've handed to the petroleum countries. He also refers to the new books by Fareed Zakaria and David Rothkopf, each of which predicts massive changes that will take away from America's influence on the world. As before, I await Friedman's recognition of his own contribution to this effort, how his cheerleading for globalization covered up the very real problems that quite a few of us foresaw.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Customer service at its best

One hears many complaints about customer service these days, how it takes too long to get hold of a representative, how they read from a script and make you try things you already tried, and so forth. But the bottom line is, do they fix the problem, or can they give you an idea as to when it might be fixed?

Since getting a new computer a few months ago, I have been listening to music through the Yahoo LAUNCHcast Radio program. A couple of days ago, it stopped working. It still manages to play the ad, of course, but then, I get a mysterious error message (Error Code 8, which is its own brand of unhelpful). So I e-mailed Yahoo "Customer Care," and this is what I received back:
Thank you for contacting us about the problem you are experiencing with

Yahoo! Music services.

We regret you are having concerns accessing LAUNCHcast Radio.

The music team and engineers are aware of this problem. Unfortunately, we do not have a set time for a resolution. All issues are prioritized based on a number of factors including issue severity and number of customers affected. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, and do appreciate your patience.

Thank you again for writing to Yahoo! Music. Please don't hesitate to email us back if we can be of further assistance.

What isn't wrong with this response? First, it's clearly a form letter, given the odd spacing. Then, they're "aware of this problem," but offer no fix, no promise of a fix, and no notification if there ever is a fix (do they expect me to crank it up once a week or so to see if it works? I'm far more likely to delete it from my machine and never think of it again).

And is there anyone who isn't bothered by the "further assistance" line? Hey, Yahoo, you haven't been of any assistance yet, let alone "further."

This, then, may be the ultimate downfall of the free model espoused by industry experts (I wrote about this last week). It's all a matter of incentives. Yahoo has no incentive to fix my problem; I'm not a subscriber, I have been content with the free version (granted, I'm not listening to the ads any more, but the loss of one user isn't sufficient to make them sweat about that).

Worse yet, they had no big incentive to get it to work right in the first place. As long as only a few people have this problem, Yahoo can maintain their projections for number of users and charge for the ads accordingly. What is the threshold at which a problem becomes worth fixing in the free, push-out-to-everyone market, 1000 problems, 10000 problems, what?

So each of us who are consumers of free or near-free mass services need to understand, there is no "customer care" for us. Have a problem with Twitter, or Facebook, or Yahoo, or Google, or so on, that's your problem in the magical free model - good luck, and "don't hesitate to email us back."

Peculiar argument

I'm actually a little tired of parsing the Clinton campaign, of posting about it. My take in a nutshell: she ran a bad campaign, one predicated on the idea that it would be a cakewalk. It was never going to be that easy, there were too many things working against her, perhaps the most notable being a real hunger for change; she's simply too much the insider, and ran that way. Now we see the spectacle of someone who's lost who simply refuses to give up. Some find that admirable, but most people simply see it as embarrassing and somewhat pathetic. Hillary has once again become the thing that probably rankled the most during the years following her health care failure: irrelevant.

And this has apparently unhinged some people. Marie Cocco of the Washington Post has written an odd column, The 'Not Clinton' Excuse. She begins by dismissing the very real concerns of millions that Hillary is not the right choice for president as "a platitude," as "a rationale":
It isn't the woman part, the rationale goes. It's the Clinton part: that "polarizing" persona and "unlikable" demeanor. The unappetizing thought of President "Billary." The more inspirational quest by Barack Obama to become the country's first black president.
This is one of the more curious conceits of those finding their refuge in sexism, that no one could possibly be against Hillary unless they're obsessed with her gender. This is, of course, a slap in the face to everyone who looked at what the candidates offered, and decided that other-than-Hillary more nearly matches their hopes for the leader of the country.

Then Cocco spins off into a concern that "no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation," and that this represents a serious deficiency in America's politics. She laments, "which woman, exactly, would be acceptable?"

There won't be any, because we resist the rise of women based on family connections - just look at all the world leaders who used that route. She cites Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, inexplicably missing Eva Peron. None of these quite supports her case that we should clear the way for Elizabeth Edwards or Chelsea Clinton to move into the Oval Office tomorrow (to be fair, she also mentions Gandhi, who was at least a credible leader, but did far too little to move India forward). She sneers at those who trot out the "dynasty" argument; after all, we elected George W. (who is exhibit #1 as to why Americans are now especially reluctant to anoint families).

Cocco then trots out the arguments that we've heard a million times:
No woman on the political horizon possesses the portfolio that Clinton brought to this campaign: National name recognition. A record as a prodigious fundraiser -- for herself and scores of other Democrats. Winner of two Senate races in New York, a rough-and-tumble state with a trove of 31 electoral college votes and Democratic donors with deep pockets. And a huge, loyal base of support within her party.
Yes, impressive, though not quite as impressive as the record Hillary claims for herself. But, so what? She lost, it's over.

What is Cocco saying here? That we should stop, roll back the actual campaign, and hand the nomination to Hillary because: 1) she has this remarkable track record (one which is matched or exceeded by others), and 2) there will never be another woman who will have a chance?

This is downright loopy. I don't think we'll ever know for sure whether sexism or racism is the larger force in this campaign, but they both apply, giving Barack a pretty good excuse if he had lost. And, as for Cocco's concern that no other woman will emerge for another generation, no one predicted the meteoric rise of Obama, so there could well be some woman, currently low-profile, who will be a contender in the next decade.

So I can answer Cocco's final question, feeling pretty comfortable that I'm speaking for millions:
Is it something about Hillary, or something about us?
It's something about Hillary (and not that she's a woman).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Truth vs. politics

We often make false dichotomies, the kind of arguments that start, "There are two types of people...." Most of these arguments are false, as people are not usually that easy to categorize. But I'm going to make such a dichotomy in this post; understand that I'm presenting these as absolutes, rather than the tendencies they more likely are.

There are two types of people, those who seek truth wherever it takes them, and those who believe that facts can be used selectively to advocate one position or another. I like to think of myself as in the former camp, that I can be convinced by a compelling argument or a changing situation that something I believe is wrong.

For example, I believe that the minimum wage is a good thing, that it represents a floor below which society is arguing that companies must not go, that they cannot use their power to withhold their share of this country's inherent bounty from other citizens. Every job has some minimum value because every person has some basic value, and this country is better when we recognize that. That doesn't mean that I know the exact number at which this minimum should be pegged, so there is still a discussion to be had.

But I am reasonable. If it could be proven, proven beyond reasonable doubt, that eliminating the minimum wage would create vast amounts of wealth, and that wealth wouldn't simply be concentrated in the hands of a few, I would change my position. If I were convinced that the nation would be better off, and no one would be irreparably damaged, I would be the first to argue for the abolition of the minimum wage.

At least I hope that I could shed my long-held beliefs so easily. And I would like to believe that most people are that way as well, but that's a big "like to believe," because I know that many find it hard to abandon the ideas that have lived inside them for years.

But today I'm talking about the people, a large number, for whom truth is largely irrelevant. Their interest is not in perceiving reality, but in self-enhancement. These are folks who find truth inconvenient, and the pursuit of it a waste of time. Sadly, many of these people are very successful and influential.

When we see Hillary Clinton insisting that the votes in Florida and Michigan be counted, while we know that, had Obama won those states, she would be at the forefront of those calling for strict rule-following, or we see her claiming that sexism is a larger force in her campaign than racism, it's hard to see her as a seeker of truth. I think one of the reasons we've come to mistrust politicians so thoroughly is that we sense that they have a wanton disregard for any truth that conflicts with the expedient positions they take.

And that is why I'm so disheartened by the public regard for CEOs (I discussed this last week in more detail). These are not men and women who have any interest in the truth, but we want to believe they have some insight that has been denied the rest of us (look how much money they have).

So Congress wants to believe that Bill Gates will express truth about H-1B visas because he's so obviously smart, and therefore is a truth-seeker. But he's not, he's an advocate; if you convinced him that more H-1B visas would hurt Microsoft, he would argue precisely the opposite of what he did contend two months ago.

We need to get a lot smarter about this, distinguish the truth-seekers from the self-servers, evaluate arguments on their merits and not their supporters.

By the way, this should not be read as an anti-Hillary post - her reluctance to discard a lost campaign clearly comes from a deep-seated place that I don't profess to understand (though Andrew Sullivan has an idea) - but I have reservations as to whether anyone in the political arena can be a seeker of truth. I can only hope that the eventual president is closer to that than we have had for the last eight (or more) years, because we have a lot of growing problems that need to be looked at from a stance of reality, not self-loving positioning.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review - God Save the Fan

There is a dilemma inherent in being a fan of anything, but sports in particular. When you are a fan of an author, you're impressed by the quality of the work, by the vividness of the characters, by the exciting plots - by something inherent in the product. If you're a fan of a politician, you likely feel that their beliefs mirror your own, or you trust their judgment.

But, when you're a fan of a sports team, you are committing yourself to a corporate entity, one that usually makes decisions based on statistics and dollars, that will try to extract every last dollar out of you. As Jerry Seinfeld has said, a sports fan is essentially rooting for laundry. Chicago Cubs fans were confronted with this reality last week, when the team acquired Jim Edmonds, a player who had been roundly hated when he played for arch-rival St. Louis; now that he was wearing the blue pinstripes, the fans were expected to cheer as loudly as they previously booed. And of course they will.

The larger part of that dilemma is that, for many people, sports is remarkably compelling, yet, most people realize how trivial they really are. The contrast between the time and money people spend on fun and games and the utter unimportance of them is huge, and many of the biggest fans understand this. Being a fan, a spectator, represents a major part of people's lives, far greater than the more actually important world of, say, public policy.

Will Leitch's new book, God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back) (2008), founders on this very point. Leitch, the creator of the popular web site, clearly wants to eat his cake and have it too.

Deadspin is a site that can't make up its mind if it's humor, journalism, linking, or something else entirely. And God Save the Fan suffers from the same split personality - what is it? Leitch recognizes the irrationality of the average fan (and himself), urging the reader (and, perhaps, himself) not to take the games so seriously, while, ahem, taking them seriously.
Sports are what we fans invest ourselves in to get away from life...It's vital for sports fans to realize that we don't need them, that we can choose what we want now. We just have to take charge and realize our power...Hopefully [this book] will at least be funny.
And then we're off on 295 pages of essays that present an indefinable mix of memoir, debunking, and, above all and running throughout, a loathing of ESPN and its broadcasters. Much of this is tiresome, and there are few humorous moments in a book that so desperately wishes to be funny. But is it really clever for Will Leitch to reveal that his first auto-erotic experience occurred in conjunction with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?

Look, Deadspin is an incredibly popular site, and that's fine. It's made Leitch into a player in the sports media world he is so quick to castigate, to the point where he's become the go-to guy representing all sports bloggers in other media outlets.

But let's not get carried away. Popularity does not equal self-awareness, and Leitch doesn't really bring any insight into the relationship between fans and the sports to which they're devoted. He seems to understand that there is something trivial about fandom, passes it off as simply an escape, but the book takes sports incredibly seriously. You just can't have it both ways.

As for his message of empowerment, Leitch simply doesn't provide any of that. He obviously cares a great deal about sports, but argues in favor of fantasy sports as the ultimate fan experience, treating athletes as "robotic producers of statistics." Yes, that is his answer as to how the fan can take control, by treating athletes with the same contempt that he feels they have for him (you need only read his essay on playing flag football with two ex-NFLers, or his evening "with" a University of Illinois basketball player, or several others, to understand how frustrated he is with being an outsider).

And that, in the end, is the message here: Since these athletic gods (including, bizarrely, ESPN) will never let you into their world, one you so desperately wish to join, the answer is to create your own snarky, pseudo-hipster world of ironic commentary. There might be some entertainment value here if the book were funnier; it's not, particularly, and that just makes it kind of sad.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I live fairly close to the junior high featured in this story, in which an eighth grader was arrested after bringing an air gun to school. Schools in this district have a zero-tolerance policy for guns or anything that looks like a gun, and this student ran afoul of this policy. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

While I certainly understand the fear that has run through our society, especially where children are concerned, is it possible that we've gone too far? We have school buses taking children across the street, because we can't trust that they will cross a street without calamity. Once a year, we have an event where children who bicycle or walk to school get a goodie bag as a reward, which doesn't prevent Mom or Dad from stoking up the gas-guzzler the other 179 days of the school year. We have zero-tolerance policies for T-shirts, toy guns, and who knows what else.

What concerns me is the message that we send by criminalizing stupid behavior. I'm sure the school spends a lot of time propounding the various rules and policies, so it's pretty dumb for a kid to bring anything that resembles a gun to school. On the other hand, kids are stupid, that's a big part of being a kid - it's certainly fair to punish a child for such an offense, but this knee-jerk reaction of arrest, suspension, possible expulsion strikes me as, pardon the expression, overkill.

We could use such an incident as a teaching experience without putting a 13-year-old "into the system," especially because it is unclear the extent to which that helps. Most school shootings have not occurred when the student has pulled a gun out of his locker; they tend to bring weapons to school and use them immediately.

I realize there are legal issues, that school districts hope to avoid lawsuits by showing they did everything possible to forestall violence. And I'm sure more than one educator values this response because it provides the strongest possible lesson.

But I wonder if it's time for some students, somewhere, to do a little consciousness-raising. It might be instructive for every student in a school to bring a toy gun (they would need to quite clearly be toys) to school and see if the school could really advocate arresting and expelling the entire student body. I'm not advocating this - I admit to having somewhat mixed feelings as I balance my concern for security with propriety - but it might serve as an object lesson, and get us discussing where that balance truly should be.

Of course, as long as the "permanent record" is seen as the key to life success, that kind of gesture is unlikely to happen. Still...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Talking to our friends

There's been a lot of discussion the past few days about whether we should talk to our enemies, as Obama has stated he plans to do, or whether that's a form of appeasement, as Bush and McCain contend. This is an issue which has bubbled up previously in the campaign, Clinton was quite critical of Obama, but, since Bush's speech in Israel, it's become front-burner stuff.

Matt Yglesias has a post, titled Prestige, that asks, "What are we afraid of?" I'm going to delve into this a little more deeply, if only to try to work out what the implications of talking to, say, Iran would be. The contention of Bush, McCain, and Clinton is that speaking directly to nations that have expressed enmity toward us (or Israel, apparently the only ally we feel quite this strongly about; after all, we continue to be in bed with China despite their hostility to the government of our putative friend Taiwan) gives those nations worldwide prestige, enhancing their status in the eyes of other countries.

I asked a friend of mine who was born overseas what the reaction would be in her country if the United States were to talk with Iran. She felt that it would be a matter of, "What is the U.S. doing?," but Iran itself would not be elevated in any way.

And that's the crux of the matter to me. It's something of a game theory problem, in that we have actions we can take and responses the other side can make. To analyze it requires us to figure out what the alternative to talking is - saber-rattling, economic sanctions, war. I'll talk through it lieu of making a table.

Let's take Iran, and assume our primary goal is to halt their nuclear weapons development program. First, we need to be certain that they have such a program; it would not be unprecedented for a country to insist they had a WMD program to maintain their prestige, even though they didn't have one at all. It would be ruinous to impose sanctions or wage war, hurting the citizens of a country, if they actually didn't pose a threat.

So we'll stipulate that they have such a program. One key is that, if we start by talking, the other actions are not precluded. We can always stop talking and bring out the cruise missiles if needed. Negotiation might succeed, and, if it does so, we will do the least harm to the least people.

The other actions might well ratchet up real tension, will probably spill over into the region as a whole, and are harder to withdraw. Saber-rattling and sanctions are not guaranteed to work, as we have seen in Cuba. War, while effective, carries its own set of problems, as we well know.

So talking has a lot going for it. But, there's the contention that sitting down with Ahmadinejad will enhance his stature in the rest of the world, that the act of shaking hands with the American president will bless the Iranian's viewpoint.

First of all, we're the big dog. Whatever propaganda Iran might try to get out of a meeting, the reality is that we can still wipe them off the face of the earth any time we'd like. That the mythical "world community" might give props to Mahmud pales in the face of the facts.

Second, and more importantly, I have serious doubts that there is a big prestige factor at work. Our allies, particularly in the face of our actions in Iraq, will probably welcome a more subdued approach; it seems unlikely in the extreme that Britain will embrace Iran because we spoke with them. And those people who are already against us, sure, maybe they'll cheer on Iran, but there's some chance they're already doing that (not a very big one; Iran is not very popular).

So what's the problem here? Shouldn't we engage with the world, friends and enemies, until it's clear that other actions are needed? Aren't we big enough to do that? No one wants America to be foolish, but unilateral behavior seems to create at least as many problems as it solves, and we definitely need to stop that.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rose-coloured spectacles

I have just come across a column in Britain's Guardian by Will Hutton titled, "Forget the naysayers - America remains an inspiration to us all." The premise is that the current American pessimism is unfounded, that we shouldn't dwell on:
The fashionable view is that the American economy is a busted flush, a hollowed-out, deindustrialised shell housed in decaying infrastructure that delivers McJobs and has survived courtesy only of a ramped-up housing market and the willingness of foreigners to hold trillions of dollars of American debts.

China and India are set to overtake it in the foreseeable future. At best, the US will have to get used to living in a multipolar world it cannot dominate. At worst, it will have to accept, along with the West, that the new economic and political heart of the world is Asia.

Instead of this bleak picture, we must believe that:
[T]he next 50 years will be as dominated by the US as the last 50. The US will widen its technological and scientific dominance, sustain its military hegemony, launch a period of reindustrialisation and continue to define modernity both in culture and industry.
Hutton bases this a contention that the U.S. far outstrips the rest of the world in the really vital things that drive success, "universities, research base, commitment to information and communications technology and new technologies along with a network of institutions that supports new enterprise." He cites a number of statistics that demonstrate America's dominance.

Further, America is aggressive about fixing its current economic problems, has a dynamic political process fueled by the current presidential race, and "a belief that no problem can't be fixed." The only possible competitor, China, has nowhere near the institutions to support change; India is too far behind to catch up in less than centuries; maybe the EU can become "a genuine knowledge economy counterweight to America."

Hutton does allow that there are continuing problems:
It runs its financial system like a casino. It is a grossly unfair society. Its road and rail systems have been neglected for decades. University entrance has become too expensive. It has fetishised deregulation. Money corrupts its political process. To compromise the rule of law in order to 'win' the war on terror was stupid.
But no worries:
[N]one of those problems can't be fixed and the US is about to elect a President who will promise to try, in a world in which it remains the indispensable power.
If you've read this blog for any length of time, you probably can already guess my response: I really hope all this is true, but I think our problems create risks that undermine such a positive view. But I'm not the only one. Consider these quotes:
American democracy today is an offense to democratic ideals.

The object of the U.S. corporation is now naked and unashamed: it is to maximize financial gain for those who own it.

The U.S. system is not only socially unjust but also calamitously economically inefficient.
These quotes are from a 2002 book called The World We're In by British author...Will Hutton. In six years, Hutton seems to have turned completely around from a profoundly negative view to a belief that America really is the last best hope. And we all know what has happened in the past six years: a resource-wasting war of uncertain goals and outcomes, a chipping away at the democratic ideals that underpin the institutions Hutton extols, a dramatic increase in the power and wealth of the American corporation and those who run them, and so forth.

So what has changed? What has turned a respected journalist like Will Hutton into a defender of the United States? I would really like to know what has happened to his world view; is it fear of something else that has driven this U-turn?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why is housing different from jobs?

George Will writes today (well, today in the Chicago Tribune, yesterday in the Washington Post) about the housing situation, and this conservative of conservatives points out that the decline in house prices helps some people, the young couple trying to buy their first home, as much as it hurts others. Will is a little late to the party on this one, as quite a few commentators of all stripes have been pointing this out for some time (for one post by one writer, see Dean Baker here).

Will makes an odd offhand connection to global warming in his column, but goes on to say:
Homeownership is, up to a point, a barometer of social health: Ownership deepens an individual's sense of having a stake in the health of the neighborhood and the larger community.
This statement is pretty much indisputable, though I think there is a small trend running counter to this: When homeowners start to flip and serially move up and use equity as a springboard to further investment, they're probably not making much of a commitment to the community. But that's a minority, as most people move somewhere to make a life, get their kids in the schools, and put down roots. Clearly, the encouraging of ownership through favorable tax treatment and easy mortgages helps with that (whatever negatives may accompany those policies).

But stable jobs accomplish the same goals. Everything you can say about home ownership you can apply equally to the stability of careers. I live in a Chicago suburb that appeared, some years ago, to be on the verge of becoming a major technical center (I wrote about that failure about a week ago). The number of people who were enticed to come to Naperville are now finding that the jobs are elsewhere, so they're left either to move again or to endure lengthy commutes. Either way, these people aren't able to contribute fully to the vitality of the community.

Yet, if you were to suggest to George Will that we do something to encourage stability of jobs, through tax inducements or anti-offshoring legislation, he would be the first to cry about the sanctity of the free market, or the evils of corporate welfare.

I'm not saying I'm in favor of massive tax breaks to get companies to retain jobs (especially since it seems those agreements are invariably written in the corporation's favor), I'm just saying the philosophy is inconsistent. If we are to enact legislation to "mitigate bad consequences" for the innocent, as Will contends, then we need to be willing to consider similar legislation in the job market.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Freedom has its limits

About a month ago, I posted on the in vogue theory that we're moving to a free model for, well, everything. This has been pushed by Chris Anderson of Wired, but others have also weighed in with their belief that bandwidth and storage and software are moving to a free model, where value-added activities provide revenue. I expressed doubt about this, that Google mail space is not actually part of a market, but something subsidized by other activities. The new theory is akin to saying that cereal boxes are moving to a zero-cost model, since you're only paying for the cereal inside.

For more evidence of this, consider the web site Griddlers are puzzles, also known as Tsunami, Paint by Numbers, or Nonograms, in which a grid is surrounded by numbers that are used to deduce which squares in the grid should be filled. It's pretty interesting, somewhat mathematical, certainly more intriguing than Sudoku. I have delved into these somewhat, being an inveterate puzzler, and they're pretty addictive. And the best web site I've seen is the aforementioned (I'll call it gnet from here for convenience), which is extremely well programmed.

gnet has been free during its five or six years of existence, never using ads to generate revenues (other than some mentions of their own griddler products). A while ago, they created a new application, and, rather than offering it free, they decided to move to a subscription model:
Our goal is for Griddlers to continue to be the highest quality site of its kind. We have been thrilled by your response. It has remained free, because we want to share this enjoyment with everyone. But, all of this success comes at a cost.

The increased use puts a very heavy load on our server. If we want a site that performs well and can continue to grow and improve, we need to upgrade soon and this will be expensive.

Even though all the puzzles on our site are free, after considering many options we decided to make the New Applet availabe uniquely to subscribers. If you want to use it fully, you’ll need to become a subscriber.

All Griddler-lovers will be welcome on the site whether you subscribe or not. Most of the features you currently enjoy will still be available. New features will be created especially for our Subscribers.
To reiterate what they said above, the existing functionality was still available to non-subscribers (except they did sharply reduce the number of puzzles a free user could save). But it was pretty obvious that innovation was going to be slanted toward subscribers. A subscription is not particularly onerous, $40 a year, but it was still a dramatic change to the model.

About a week ago, they made another change: the selection filter to omit puzzles that have already been solved was taken away from non-subscribers. For people who have done a lot of puzzles, this is a major change, as now they have to search through every puzzle in a category to find one they haven't done yet. The explanation:
During rush hours you can see 1300-1400 people online. They try to find their solved puzzles amongst 50,000,000 records and select their type of puzzles from dozens of thousands of records. By all means it is a huge task.

Our resources are limited. As much as we try to upgrade the site, the speed of growth is faster then us. Note, that all the work on the site has been done voluntarily. However, maintaining and hosting a large site like ours cost money. Making a subscription is actually giving life to the site.
What is interesting here is how this bucks the so-called trend. This site has been free, then features were added that are available only to subscribers, now functionality is being removed. And this is why the "free" model is unsustainable - everyone has to agree that everything is free before any one thing can be. If gnet were receiving free server space, they might not have to make the changes.

One wonders how this site started. Did the founders start it as a hobby, then found it got away from them? Perhaps the initial development was interesting enough to do for free; now that the tasks are largely maintenance, they'd like to be compensated.

I don't find anything wrong with the model they're adopting. They're still providing some service to those who won't or can't pay, but one does wonder how much functionality they can remove from the free version before their customers become dissatisfied (actually, from the comments that were left about this change, some people are already planning to walk away, though I would think it will be a small number).

But this is the same model as, for example, we're seeing now in Chicago about telecasts of Cubs baseball games. The team used to offer 144 games a year (out of 162) for free on broadcast television. Now the number's down to 60, with the rest offered on cable, and the 15% or so who don't have cable are out of luck.

It's dangerous to take a couple of examples and assume they represent a trend, but it is also risky to assume that "everything will be free." I'm sure could adopt an ad-driven model, but, for some reason, they haven't. My guess is that modern technology will actually permit different kinds of models, that some sites will insist on subscriptions for full functionality, others will become free (with copious ads or attempts to sell added value), some may go to transaction-based pricing.

But the attempts of some big thinkers to get us to accommodate ourselves to an inevitable "free" model may well reflect their desire to be in on the next big thing far more than a realistic appraisal of where we actually are going.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Chicago Tribune, front page, above the fold, May 14, 2008:

Clinton: Race isn't over

As an issue for me to exploit

(OK, the second line isn't in the actual paper...)

James Carville and Mary Matalin - goodbye act of betrayal. Mr. Richardson’s endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic - James Carville

If she [Hillary Clinton] gave him [Barack Obama] one of her cojones, they'd both have two - James Carville
So the tiresome James Carville, the self-styled Ragin' Cajun, has once again shown himself as the media whore he is in the second quote above (the first was from March when Bill Richardson endorsed Obama). I understand the press is tired of this campaign, tired of going through the contortions necessary to avoid actually understanding and discussing issues, but to continue to go to this massively irrelevant figure for his "insight" is simply lazy.

Every few weeks, Tim Russert trots out Carville, former Democratic strategist, along with his wife, former Republican strategist Mary Matalin (oh, ho, ho, they truly are strange bedfellows, har, har), for their commentary on the presidential campaign. Their appearances are train wrecks.

Carville, with his folksy Cajun accent and shiny bald head, cannot escape the charismatic envelope of his former employers, the Clintons; he loves, loves, loves them. Last month, he came up this gem:
It's also fair to say this is probably the best, most courageous toughest presidential candidate that we're ever seen anywhere, anyplace in our lifetimes, OK?...She is--she is--her personal performance in this campaign, her personal tenacity has been awesome.
Oddly enough, this is part of a criticism he's making about the Clinton campaign, but he passes that off by pointing out that Bush ran a good campaign in 2000, and, "look what that got us." (And his point is, what? That we should excuse a poorly-run campaign because well-run campaigns inevitably lead to disaster. It certainly doesn't sound as if Jim's doing any more political consulting any time soon.)

And what an amazing statement! Carville was born in 1944, which is before 1968, which is when presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed during his campaign, so the use of "courageous" seems a bit much. More than a bit much, it's an insult to people who actually do need to show courage to do their jobs, to live their lives.

The biggest downside to Hillary losing is that she will go back to the Senate, probably in a position to exert even more power, and she can sign a book deal worth, what, maybe $10 million, to give her self-serving view of the campaign. Hillary's a lot of things, good and bad, but courageous is near the bottom of the list.

But, of course, that's just Carville being Carville. As are his odd performances on Meet The Press, in which he will grub for attention, usually by thrusting his hand Russert-ward (pick me, pick me), only to come out with some banality - it's just he can't stand to let anyone else have the floor for more than about two minutes. And, after issuing yet another bon mot, he looks around the studio to see who's laughing (no one's laughing out here, Jim).

And his wife is no better, but certainly different. Her flat affect and nasal whine suggests nothing so much as narcotization; she only really springs to life when talking about the man she loves, Dick Cheney. Her basic approach is to greet any talk of the Democratic campaign with a wheezing, "and that's why John McCain is going to be our next president."

I have seen a lot of the coverage during this campaign, and there are actually reporters and commentators who seem engaged in the process. Any of them are worth more notice than this over-exposed pair of windbags who seem to exist only to be seen. I know that Carville co-hosts a radio show (on sports!) with Tim Russert's son, but, at this point, I would rather see Luke Russert's dry cleaner on Meet The Press.

Supposedly, Carville continues to act as an advisor to the Clinton campaign, but I cannot imagine what, other than folksy faux-outrageousness, he can bring to that effort. It's time to send Jim and Mary back to New Orleans and accept that their time on the stage is over.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

CEOs - a more complete look

I was reading a few of my own past posts, and realized that I have been pretty much unremittingly negative on the subject of the modern CEO. I have portrayed them as greedy and heedless of the havoc they create, and have only alluded to the idea that I don't consider them evil:
For me to explain why, for the most part, I don't consider them inherently evil, just people who have perverse incentives to do evil things, is not the post I want to write today. I'm not sure that they're amoral or sociopathic, though you'll find no shortage of people who believe so. Rather, I believe them to be a group that lives in a world in which social norms have been suspended, people who are able to rationalize almost any action as long as it leads them in the direction they want to go (yes, I understand that many people would consider that the embodiment of evil, and I won't argue).
I have picked on a few CEOs in particular, those who have said or done things that were demonstrably stupid or self-serving, like Randall Stephenson of AT&T:
My real criticism of Mr. Stephenson is that anyone who makes his kind of money should be a problem-solver. If your goal is to hire 5000 people, then you find a way to do it. You raise the starting salary. You provide a good working environment. You offer education benefits. You hire good customer service personnel away from other companies. You do something to find the source of the problem and take steps to solve it.

What you don't do is stand in front of a business group and whine about it. Let's say you give an assignment to one of your employees, maybe you tell a regional manager to increase sales in his area by 10%. When he or she comes back to you in a year and says, "I couldn't do it, my customers are too dumb to know that they should sign up for our wonderful services," would Mr. Stephenson find that an acceptable reason?

So it was clear to me that Mr. Stephenson didn't see the retrieval of these jobs as a real priority, as a problem to be solved.
And I certainly stand behind those statements, and others I've made. But I feel some need to draw out my logic on the subject a little further, as my expressed view up to now has not been particularly nuanced.

The first passage I quoted is essentially what I believe, that CEOs live in a world that provides them incentives for the actions they take. We have decided, through our continued election of public officials who believe that government's role is to step back and let business do its work (or even to support business), that financial might is inevitably right. We have allowed something of a moral calculus to emerge which says that people get lots of money because they deserve it, and they deserve it because the market has decided that's what they get (a bit of circular reasoning that closes off all subsequent discussion).

So your average CEO has two priorities:
  1. The company needs to make as much money as possible
  2. I need to make as much money as possible
[Those priorities are not necessarily listed in order.]

Their observed behavior follows inevitably from those priorities, and, as such, there is nothing pathological about it. Randall Stephenson doesn't whine about being unable to fill call center positions with Americans because he's frustrated, he does so to provide cover for keeping those jobs in lower-cost India, which is completely consonant with his goals.

The problem I have with this is that we expect these people to be different, that people in the media and people in Congress and people on the street expect these moguls to have answers to questions, solutions to problems, and treat them with enormous respect.

So Charlie Rose interviews the head of Cisco, who says the only way Americans can remain competitive is to obtain more education. Note that he doesn't pledge to hire any of these new graduates. The obvious inference is that he wants a domestic supply in case the Chinese and Indians decide they want too big a piece of the pie, but no one brings that up.

Congress invites Bill Gates to testify on the subject of H-1B visas. He's treated as a statesman, as an expert on labor law and immigration policies, and, unsurprisingly, picks the policy that will most benefit Microsoft (and himself).

The question is, why do we expect anything else? I know that we desperately want to believe that someone has answers to the problems that we face, and business people are great at presenting themselves as problem-solvers.

But the problems they're great at solving are not, how do we retain America's position in the world, or how do we educate the youth of America, or how do we square the rise of the multinational corporation with national interest overseas? Yet we go on asking these "experts" for their input, probably because we can't think of anybody else.

We have to stop this. Donald Trump may know how to put up a building, but it is downright misleading to ask him for his advice on the curriculum in the third grade. All Carly Fiorina knows about health care plans is that it's been a long while since she had to worry about what kind of coverage she has.

Business executives are limited people; it's how they've been trained, it's how they've risen to the top. There is no reason to think that they have any better advice about education or foreign policy than Derek Jeter could provide on the situation in Yemen, and we need to stop thinking they do. All information they give us is self-serving, which is fine - we have to stop believing it's something more.
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