Sunday, August 31, 2008

A question about labels

(I haven't had much luck asking questions in this blog, perhaps a function of low readership, do you think?, but I'll try again.)

The post I just wrote about rocks and deer (provocative tease, n'est-ce pas?), I had trouble labeling it. I don't generally agonize over the labels too much, it's not something I think has so much use that I need to give a lot of thought to it.

But I like the labels to mean something, whether it be politics or sports or whatever. And every so often I write a post that seems uncategorizable, like the last one, where I slapped on "running" (fairly misleading) and created a new one called "memories," which seems accurate but not so terribly useful.

So what do other people do with their categories? Do you worry about it, try to make the set you have developed fit every subsequent post, or do you just create them on the fly and not get concerned about how big or orthogonal the set is?

Permanence and impermanence

I've lived in my current house for quite a few years now. Soon after coming here, I found that, almost exactly a mile and a half from my front door, there was a large rock in front of a car dealership. It was sitting right on the corner at the end of a relatively nice route, fairly shady, and, since my minimum run for the day is just about three miles, became something of a landmark for me. I would run there less than once a week (and if my minimum for a period became more than three miles, even less); nonetheless, it became a touchstone, something familiar.

When I was a kid, my family moved from the Chicago area to Grand Rapids, Michigan. As will happen when you leave other family behind, we made the trip back and forth quite a few times in and around the four years we lived there. On the way was the exit for Coloma, Michigan, and there was at least one billboard for Deer Forest. My brother, not very old, became fascinated by the name, and, since it was far enough along that my mother could use a driving break, we stopped there a couple of times. And it was quite horrible, this petting zoo with scrawny little animals and very little else. My memories are dim, but I just remember this narrow road leading back to this decrepit facility, and the little captive creatures looked unhappy, and it was all pretty miserable.

The car dealership moved out about a year ago, and a large office supply chain has razed the lot for a brand new facility. And, though I knew it was probably coming, as a big rock doesn't fit the corporate image, I ran down that shady street a week ago, came around the corner, and "The Rock" was no more. Gone. In a community with teardowns and turnover and constant growth, that one thing that I thought was as solid as, well, a rock is now no more, reduced to gravel or sitting decoratively in a construction foreman's back yard.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had to make a quick trip across Michigan and back on Thursday. And I saw something that flabbergasted me: a billboard for Deer Forest in Coloma, Michigan. So little did I believe my eyes that I looked for it on the way back, and the billboard was set up westward as well. It's still there, after all these decades, and the billboard has a picture of a Ferris wheel and other attractions, and their web site (not a particularly attractive one, in my opinion) shows a bunch of rides for the kids, along with the usual assortment of animals.

So "The Rock" is gone, and another symbol of permanence that marks a community in such a small way has been removed because it doesn't fit the corporate guidebook for pleasing frontage area. And Deer Forest remains, long after a time when it might have skimmed a few tired tourists and their kids off the highway, long after the moment I would have thought it had outlived any possible relevance in its indifference.

I'm seeing significance here, but I'm not quite putting my finger on "le mot juste" (or, more likely, "les mots justes") to express it. Perhaps it's just that, in some way, I cared more for "The Rock" than I ever did for Deer Forest, that a seedy petting zoo in backwater Michigan just fails to have the resonance for me that an seemingly unchanging hunk of stone does. And I guess I hope that "The Rock" is giving someone somewhere some kind of pleasure, and that Deer Forest is thriving and creating enjoyment for a new generation of zoo-goers.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


I had to make a quick trip to Michigan on Thursday (it wasn't really all that quick). Taking I-94 across the state was interesting, because the good people of Michigan made a decision that, on the face of it, probably made a lot of sense. The speed limit most of the way on this two-lane highway (something I've never really gotten is how we talk about lanes; I guess I mean "four-lane highway," because there are two in each direction, but what do I care, I only have two lanes to worry about - the other side could have six lanes, making it an eight-lane highway, and that wouldn't do me a bit of good, would it?) is 70 for passenger cars, 60 for trucks.

Given the added danger of trucks, their increased energy, it may well be prudent to enforce a lower speed limit on them. But what happens in reality is, if there is sufficient truck traffic (and it would appear there is always sufficient truck traffic on I-94), they totally inhabit the right lane. Even if there are n times as many cars as trucks, the cars are effectively all shoved into the left lane (I use n because I don't know the right number). In effect, two traffic lanes become one, and car traffic can really get backed up.

In Illinois, there are no effective differences in the speed limits. Oddly enough, officially there are, something that has caused controversy in the past, but I've been driving here for years and have rarely seen any real difference. Of course, as I drive mostly in the Chicago area, rarely do I drive on highways in which there are only two lanes in each direction.

It's hard for me to believe that there isn't more risk in the split speed limits. If you try to drive correctly, that is, keep the left lane clear except to pass, then you're constantly changing lanes as you come up on slow-moving trucks. I saw several cars on I-94, drivers of which were obviously in a big hurry, weave in and out, skirting bumpers - does this strike anyone as safer than having the trucks and cars at the same speed? Sure didn't look like it to me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The original maverick

Is it possible that John McCain, the original maverick, thinks that "maverick" implies random, unexplainable decisions, rather than adhering to a set of principles that are sometimes at odds with a party's orthodoxy? Because I think the people think that McCain is the latter, and I'm beginning to suspect that McCain is the former.

I'm sorry, who for Veep??

I vacationed in Alaska two years ago, right around this time of year. I went to Juneau, walked past the governor's mansion (which is nice but hardly ornate)...and Sarah Palin had not won the right to live there yet.

A few days earlier, completing the train trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage, we traveled through a small town called Wasilla. At that time, Sarah Palin was four years removed from a six-year stint as mayor of this town of about 7,000 people.

Usually it's pretty easy to figure out what a presidential nominee is thinking when he makes his pick for running mate. Even in the case of Dan Quayle, the attraction was clear, if misplaced. He was young, but had some experience, and he came out on the right side of many of the social issues. At the time, he was considered something of a comer, though he obviously had not yet enjoyed the scrutiny that exposed him as a hopeless lightweight.

But Sarah Palin is known, if at all, largely for being the best-looking governor in the nation (this opinion, of course, held by male commentators). Alaska is quite an unusual state, and certainly does present some unique challenges among the fifty. One might say that anyone who could master those challenges would be nimble enough to handle a larger stage. Palin, however, hasn't been governor long enough to prove that at all.

Whatever one might think of Joe Biden, and he is a polarizing figure to many, we can agree that he fills the bill as potential president in terms of background and experience. You may be vehemently against him, but it would be hard to argue that he would not be ready to inhabit the office should a tragedy make that necessary.

Palin hasn't demonstrated that at all. It appears to be a cynical pick, one in which she passed the McCain tests of youth and ideology and, most importantly, a supposed attraction to the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, the Hillary supporters who will now flock to the McCain-Palin ticket. This assumes, of course, that those women are able to overlook the ardent pro-life stance that Palin has made a major part of her persona (one of the enduring mysteries of this campaign is the way that, so far, women have projected their pro-choice feelings on McCain, despite his clarity on the subject).

The byzantine part of my personality makes me wonder if this isn't a setup in some way, if we won't be turning on our radio or looking at the Internet the next couple of days and see Sarah Palin gratefully decline this wonderful opportunity ("upon further reflection, and consultation with my family, I have decided that this is not the time to embark on a national position, but to stay here and serve the people of Alaska"). Then McCain turns to Joe Lieberman, the nation breathes a sigh of relief, and we all hop on board with Grandpa John and his little friend, realizing that this really is a strong pair after all.

I'm probably wrong. John McCain probably just likes the image of having a running mate who was three years old when he was taken into captivity by the North Vietnamese. Why will be talked about for decades to come.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Biden and Iraq

I haven't said anything about Obama's pick of Joe Biden as his running mate. But I will now: I'm in favor of it, I think Biden presents a good complement and energizes the ticket in a way that most of the other reported candidates would not.

My impression of Biden before this campaign was, probably, somewhat negative. I didn't know too much about him, was basically familiar with the plagiarism and the occasional running off at the mouth, knew he was considered strong on foreign policy. However, in the early debates, he intrigued me, not enough for me to ignore the fact that he had no chance, but enough so to make me pay more attention to him.

And I like people who take contrarian views, who challenge conventional wisdom, and Biden was willing to talk about the partitioning of Iraq. The more I thought about that, the more I thought there was value in at least considering that, despite the reality that nobody else was.

While I'm still not certain that partitioning was or is a good idea, it would solve one problem. If we ever do leave Iraq, and sectarian violence emerges, we will face the dilemma of having to go into a country in which certain sizable factions don't want us. Potentially, we would have to violate a nation's sovereignty in order to clean up a mess that a lot of Americans would feel honor-bound to ameliorate (we broke it, we bought it).

In my April review of Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell, I wrote this:
(I think I'll leave the large question of sovereignty to a later post. I need to work out the extent to which claims of sovereignty affect my feelings here; suffice it to say now that that issue complicates the kind of intervention that Power feels the U.S. needs to demonstrate.)
While this post is still not my last word on the big issue of sovereignty, it is true that sovereignty complicates any body's intervention in the affairs of a foreign country. It has happened when nations have been accused of internal genocide, and it would do so if Iraq fell into that level of strife.

At the very least, partitioning would solve a part of the problem. If there is an Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Shi'ites decide to clean up the Kurds once and for all (and claim the oil therein), we can plausibly assist the Kurds in defense of their own nation in a way that would be much more difficult if the Kurds simply occupy a small section of the larger country.

Again, I'm not necessarily convinced that a partition of Iraq is appropriate, certainly not without the agreement of their people. But it has impressed me that Joe Biden was willing to think about it, and, perhaps, he can bring this kind of thinking to the problems that will face this administration. It's certainly worth a shot.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cold speeches

As I sail about the blogosphere the last couple of days, I look at the endless parsing of the Democratic Convention speeches, the general thumbs-up for Michelle Obama, and for Hillary Clinton, and for other folks who got their minutes of stage time, and I'm left cold and somewhat envious.

I'm envious of those people who are so excited by what's going on, the pundits and bloggers who parse through each line to find the hidden motivations (is Hillary supporting Barack enough? If you take the 37th letter of each sentence of her speech, it spells out "I want John McCain to be my president" - is this significant?), the delegates crying as Michelle spins her tale of overcoming hardship. Envious because I want to feel that kind of passion for the cause, I want to know that sense of commitment.

But I don't. The speakers are speaking, and the words are predictable. Michelle needs to humanize her husband and herself, so she tells the story of her upbringing, and the story of their courtship, and how important being a mom is, and she accomplishes that, and I am unsurprised. Hillary needs to show her support for the nominee of her party, and she does that, and I am unsurprised.

These are professional politicians, speaking speeches which are well-vetted, approved by the party and the campaign. There will be no surprises, no real news, just professionals delivering exactly what is expected. They will play their assigned roles.

And none of this will amount to anything more than a cash infusion for Denver. It won't solve any of our problems, it won't change the path this country is on, it won't even change minds. It's self-indulgence, throwing a party to celebrate something that hasn't even happened yet. Wake me up when the adults come home.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Uncle Teddy

I know that it is unfashionable to speak ill of the dead or those we fear are dying, that it somehow seems inhuman to be realistic about someone who is suffering or no longer here to defend himself.

But that attitude leads us into some terrible conundrums, as we extol the steadfastness of Senator Jesse Helms at the same time we ignore that his convictions were all from ignorance and hate, simply because he does what we all must in the end do, and that is end.

And so we all grow weepy-eyed last night as the great liberal lion (and aren't the media in love with that phrase?) emerged from the wings in Denver to give a speech, literally climbing out of a hospital bed, defying doctors' orders to sing the praises of Barack Obama. This followed a Ken Burns film that showed Teddy sailing away with children and grandchildren, passing along his love of the sea to more generations of Kennedys in a sailboat that probably costs about 4 or 5 average American family salaries, paid for with Papa Joe's money that was earned in only slightly more reputable fashion than was the Capone fortune.

The "analysis" that came afterwards, the "greatest living Senator" and "one of the five greatest of all time," was predictable to anyone who has watched the pre-obituaries that have been rampant since the senator's diagnosis of a brain tumor. And I am willing to believe that Kennedy has done a lot of the things for which he's given credit, that he has remained the principled liberal while being willing to "reach across the aisle" and work with people in the other party.

Yet we should remember a few things. We should remember that the rise of the Republican Reaganauts, which is the place where that party began to part ways with its moderate wing and, in many ways, lost its mind and soul, came about in no small part because the lion chose to challenge a sitting president of his own party in 1980. His personal ambition paved the way for the last 28 years, which actually made the fulfillment of Teddy's own philosophy impossible.

We should remember that his accomplishments are far more philosophical and aspirational than they have been real. That he bravely continues the fight for universal health care doesn't conceal the reality that he has been in the Senate for 46 years and has not gotten it done; that may be as frustrating to him as can be, but he still gets to travel about the country seeking out the best possible treatment for his own affliction. There are quite a few American citizens who get the same diagnosis and are told to go home, get their affairs in order, and say goodbye.

We should especially remember Chappaquiddick. There are people I respect enormously who chalk up any mention of this to the vile gasbags of right-wing talk radio, but I think we excuse this incident at our own peril. The primary thing is that a young woman never had a chance to live her life, to raise a family, to be a 68-year-old delegate at this week's convention, and "the family" treated this incident as an impediment to their own ambitions. And the refusal of the senator to see that this would forever bar him from the office his father was so desperate to make a family legacy delayed his ascension to the spot he now holds in so many hearts.

We have for so long elevated the Kennedy family to national symbol, something that has invited the polarization that has prevented much of their agenda from being realized. They, as now embodied in the failing senator, may well be everything that their most fervent supporters have believed they are...but it is unlikely. Their very iconography has interfered with the real business of providing leadership, and has distorted the very real legacy they will leave.

As in all classic heroic sagas, the weaknesses of the hero prove to be his ultimate downfall. So to for Ted Kennedy, and those weaknesses were so unnecessarily evoked. Remembering that, even at this time in his life, is not inappropriate, it is simply to try to take the full measure of the man. Not to do so is dishonest.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The United States and the world

As we begin the Democratic convention today, many are excited by the new attitude President Obama will bring to the world. Instead of the paranoid fantasies of the neo-cons, we will enter into cordial relations with all who wish it. Oh, we won't be pushed around, not the big dog. But we will see a new era of comity with people of other nations, and can move ahead with solutions to the big global problems.

Wow, this sounds great. But try talking to someone from another country sometime, and you'll retain just a touch of cynicism about this wonderful new land of hugs and kisses. Because, unlike us, the people of other nations don't necessarily perceive magical changes coming from a change of administration. We believe that a move from Bush to Obama will make big differences to the way the country is run (and you probably believe that regardless of whether you like it or not). Many people, however, simply see us as one nation, and are far more murky as to how a party change might affect relations with their country or their part of the world.

We're no different, of course. Does Italy have a premier, a prime minister, or a president? Who is it? Does he or she have different policies toward the U.S. than his or her predecessor?

I can't answer those questions, and I doubt that many Americans can either. In part, that's a reflection of our myopia toward the rest of the world. But, in no small measure, it's pretty natural. It's the height of arrogance to think that other people will understand the nature of changes to our government (though they are more likely to than we are, sadly). Simply electing a new president will not suffice to make changes; we'll still have some work to do.

Coming up...Costas! Phelps! Mao!

I'll have more to say about NBC's coverage of the Olympics in a day or two, but I wanted to call out one thing in particular: for NBC to display the Tiananmen portrait of Mao Zedong right next to the head of Bob Costas was unconscionable, and perhaps their greatest violation of integrity while in China. (One wonders if perhaps it was a dig by the production team at big-dog Costas, but I can't prove that.)

Providing local color is one thing, but to have one of the major images of the Games be a huge rendering of one of the greatest mass murderers in the history of the world shows remarkably poor taste. I don't recall Jim McKay, during the Munich Games in 1972, sitting with his face perched next to a picture of the spritely Adolf Hitler.

Some will say that many of the Chinese people still hold Mao in awe, that he is admired, that at worst they call him a great leader who made a few mistakes. But you have to ask yourself, if the majority of the people decided they didn't want the picture there, would it come down? Surely our acceptance of China as a sunny happy place doesn't extend to the fantasy that democratic action would bring down that picture.

I think, though, there's something larger at work here than just the cravenness of the division of a large multinational shying away from casting aspersions on any aspect of the society of a major customer. It is, rather, a tendency to collapse history into a single, easily-digested, safe point of reference. We have taken the sadly large and messy history of "Evil in the 20th Century," and collapsed it down into the person of one badly-mustached Austrian. We've taken the most unambiguous exemplar of evil, Hitler, and turned him into the sole member of his class.

It certainly makes it easier to learn history. We don't have to make judgments on Mao or Stalin; oh, they made their mistakes, but Evil = Hitler - nice, neat, and tidy.

We, as exemplified by the too-often lazy media, do this time and again. Bill Gates (no, I'm not comparing him to Hitler) is seen as the creator of the PC, when of course he was no such thing. Vinton Cerf is called the father of the Internet, which omits the reality that the American taxpayer actually is responsible for it.

I can understand why we do this when history is remote or murky. We focus our attention on a small number of Founding Fathers, on Washington and Jefferson, when there were so many more who contributed (I've been amused by the reactions to McCullough's book on John Adams, then to the miniseries; it's stark surprise that anyone else was actually around and doing stuff - perhaps Madison will be "reborn" next). We look at only a small number of British kings as being significant. Attila's the only Hun who retains serious street cred.

But Gates and the many other people who were part of the amazing rise of the computer are still around, and we don't set the record straight. Mostly this is pretty benign; I actually find Gates-worship fairly amusing for the most part. Occasionally, though, this becomes harmful, as we expect Gates to have all of the answers for our labor problems, and we let him spew self-serving poppycock to a worshipful Congress.

And it's especially harmful when we use this tendency in order to rewrite history. You can put Mao on a T-shirt, or put his poster on your dorm wall, or use him as a backdrop for Olympics coverage, but that just shows your ignorance. He was a loathsome, horrendous killer, one of the worst in the history of this planet. That he may have been slightly less loathsome than Hitler, an arguable point, doesn't mean that we should happily participate in his rehabilitation. I really think NBC blew it here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A couple of changes to Other places

One of the first bloggers I read regularly was Kevin Drum at what was then called Calpundit. He's close to my age, has a similar philosophy to mine, and, other than the occasionally California-centric post, writes about things I like to read about. I have quoted and linked to him frequently, though I've had to stop reading the comments on his posts because they're so troll-filled.

A few years ago, he moved his blog, now called Political Animal, under the auspices of Washington Monthly magazine and, other than the occasional subscription drive post, things went ahead pretty much as before. Now, Kevin has moved again, to Mother Jones magazine (and who knew that was still around?). His new blog, now name-titled, is here. I'm going to assume that nothing much will change, so I'm going to add the new blog to my Other Places.

At the same time, Political Animal will be taken up by Steve Benen. I don't "know" him as well, but he has filled in for Kevin a few times and has been interesting. I'll leave that in my Other Places for now, and continue to check it out.

Otherwise, even though I continue to monitor other blogs through Google Reader, I haven't found any in a while to add to a list which I want to continue to keep reasonably small. As always, Gentle Reader, I will keep you informed.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some links of interest

1) A couple of weeks late, a link to a Thomas Friedman column that discusses energy. Friedman is poking holes in McCain's pretense to being a principled leader in the field of renewable sources of power (have you been watching the Olympics? Are you convinced yet that John McCain is "the original maverick," ready to lead, with the final shot of the commercial available for the face of the new five-dollar bill?).

What's interesting here is this quote:
Both the wind and solar industries depend on these [tax] credits — which expire in December — to scale their businesses and become competitive with coal, oil and natural gas.
(The column is critical of the OM for missing vote after vote on this crucial legislation, despite his support of massive subsidies for the nuclear power industry.)

Of course, no question is raised as to why the American people should be helping these industries at all. If they are the future, ready to generate millions of new jobs (according to both candidates), then what the heck do they need subsidies for? Doesn't this kind of legislation simply create another welfare industry, dependent on the people to smooth out the risks that are inherent in new technology? After we have helped the wind and solar industries get competitive with Big Oil, do we get to charge them higher taxes to pay us back for our investment?

2) I apologize for losing my original source for these two links; I suspect it was Citizen Carrie (if not, I humbly beseech forgiveness).

The first is an article from that cites a study that offshoring continues to increase in the financial industry, with India joined by China, Russia, and Brazil as hot areas for growth. Despite problems with rising wages, greater competition for talent, communication problems, and time zone differences, the numbers are just too compelling, the savings too big to ignore.

At the same time, as this article shows, the large Indian outsourcing providers will have to up their revenues or lower their headcount if they're to get their revenue per employee up to the standards of IBM, Accenture, or EDS. This lower productivity is seen as limiting the ability of Tata, Infosys, and Wipro to compete.

If we're squeezing American workers by sending jobs overseas, and squeezing Indian workers by lowering their headcount to generate expected financials, who does benefit from these trends?

3) An interesting post by Dean Baker attempting to debunk the idea that our growth in inequality comes from the differing returns enjoyed by those who are educated and technology-savvy over those mired in the old economy. I don't entirely agree with the scope of his reasoning, I think the situation is more complicated than this, but it does contribute to the discussion. Many people are simplistic when they think about things like trade agreements and visas, and the thought processes need to be broader.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Come on, we know what she means

Fire Joe Morgan is probably my favorite snark site, out relentlessly probing the newspapers and airways of our "sports journalists" to prick holes in their pomposity and just-plain-wrongness. And I certainly have my problems with NBC's coverage of the Olympics, out of which I will likely get at least one more post before it's over.

But laughing at Mary Carillo for this:
"Anyone will tell you how hard it is to come back from behind, but coming back from ahead can sometimes be even trickier."
is just plain wrong. In the context in which she said it, the meaning was clear. Being ahead, relaxing, letting the other team get back into the match, then having to regroup to establish momentum can indeed be harder, and that's what she meant. "Coming back" can mean returning to the prior good groove.

Math inflation

A few days ago, as part of his valedictory (about which I'll have more to say Sunday), Kevin Drum posted a brief item on how high school girls are taking as many math classes as boys, and, perhaps more surprisingly, how they're more likely to take advanced math. Kevin's question doesn't focus on this as much as it does the result that about 33% of all students take pre-calculus or calculus, compared to: "I'd guess that in the 50s, roughly 0% of high school students took pre-calculus or calculus classes."

I'm not sure how much of my own history with math I've given in this blog, and I don't feel like searching back through the archives, so a brief recap. Competitive mathlete (sic) in high school at a time when there were few competitions, then I became a substitute for a year after grad school. At the same time, through an odd set of circumstances, I took on the role of head math coach. The team won the state championship that year, and, once I had moved to the role of assistant coach, kept on winning, eventually putting away eight straight victories.

Of more importance to this topic is my own experience with math in the public schools. At 9, I took a summer college course, and my mom found a tutor for me. Ridiculously, I would still have to sit in the standard math classes, though I wouldn't have to pay attention or take tests. Then, a couple of years later, in eighth grade, we stopped the tutor thing (not sure why), and I, based on a lot of fighting the system by my mother, got to walk from the junior high to the high school to take geometry. This was a pretty good school system, one of the best in Michigan, but they had tremendous problems letting a junior high school kid take a class two years above grade level.

In 10th grade, we moved back to the Chicago area, and I ended up in one of the best high schools in the country (at least it's considered such every time such things are measured). I should have been in calculus then, but the school was worried about the two years after, so I had to sit through a year of senior math, a kind of time-wasting catchall that allowed students to get four years of high school math without scaling the peaks of calculus. After taking calculus my junior year, I was pretty much left on my own for my senior year. I ended up auditing a math class at Northwestern, a thoroughly unpleasant experience that displeased everyone involved, and was likely responsible for my departure from the study of mathematics.

Now this was the '70s, and, even at that time, a well-regarded high school was nonplussed at the thought of having to educate anyone in math beyond the calculus level. (To their credit, they now offer a class in multivariable calculus and linear algebra, so they've made progress...not that it does anything for me.)

I can't speak to Kevin's opinion that, in the '50s, no one took pre-calculus or calculus. I actually doubt that, given that pre-calc tends to include things like logarithms and trigonometry, and students were certainly learning about those. But he's probably right to the extent that calculus was pretty rare in high schools of the time.

Still, is it all that surprising that more students take these courses now than in the pre-Sputnik world? We pretend to prepare students for the high-tech world of tomorrow, so we offer classes that appear to do that.

But, as I understand from my lingering connections to the field, these classes are not at all equivalent to the delta-epsilon studies of my youth. The advent of symbol-manipulation graphing calculators have apparently changed the coursework in huge measure. For me, calculus was my first exposure to "real" mathematics, where underpinning concepts were to be mastered (geometry offered some of this, but in a very easy format). Apparently it has become, facilitated by the little brain-boxes, essentially an extension of algebra in which formulas are used to solve applied problems.

This is the danger of standards-based education (and a danger of private enterprise education). There is a tendency to offer what customers demand, whether it be a college requirement of four years of math or a desire to gain a fairly easy masters degree. If every university requires four years of mathematics for only vaguely technical fields (and three for every other field), high schools will be sure to provide it.

But the students are not necessarily systemically better, so the only way to get them to meet the requirement is to lower the rigor of the field. If we're going to use the study Kevin cites to justify a belief that schools today are better than ever, we better just move on, because a lot more work needs to be done to prove any such thing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What next, Barack, Cablinasian?

I have mentioned before that I am guardedly favoring Obama in the upcoming election. This support does not come from hometown pride (Go, Illinois!), or the sense that he is truly transformative (it would be hard to emerge from the cesspool of Chicago and Illinois politics and not have a little stink on you), but simply a feeling that he was the best of the choices available to us. I won't rehash all that here, why I wasn't sold on Hillary, why I fear a McCain presidency - though, as Bush becomes ever so slightly more statesmanlike in the final days, he has made McCain look worse, not better.

No, I simply felt that Obama had beliefs which might lead to iterative change, not revolutionary, and that he was smart enough to confront some of the realities that face us over the next years. I haven't seen any real attempt to reconcile the philosophy of prevailing wisdom with growing reality, but no political candidate dares to do that. His policy proposals suffer from much of the same myopia that afflict all such proposals, and I've brought such things up when I've seen them (is New Energy really going to lead to a New Economy? How, Barack?).

But again, I had hopes that he would look at things from a slightly different perspective; while he might not clean up Washington, he might be able to utilize it differently, making our democracy more a tool of the people as it was intended to be.

However, since his nomination was assured, he's done some tacking back rightward, some Clinton-style triangulation. His attempts to woo the independents make me wonder if he isn't risking the support of the blend of left and moderate right who believe change is needed, and chose him as the instrument for that change.

His overseas trip didn't bother me. A presidential candidate going abroad and meeting with foreign leaders has always struck me as essentially odd, but there is a lot of fascination with him, and I can certainly see why the other leaders would want to take his measure in a way that wouldn't make sense if he was just another fact-finding senator.

And I didn't see the threat in Obama's talking about himself as a "citizen of the world." Some of the right see that as capitulation to foreign interests, some saw it as pandering. I see it as trying to draw a contrast between his view and the more antagonistic view of Bush/Cheney/McCain, indicating a retreat from the go-it-alone philosophy that is neither sensible nor possible in the world of today.

But, to me, his recent proclamation to Indians and Pakistanis that "I'm a desi" crosses a line. Sure, Barack referring to himself with a colloquial Indian term may just be light-hearted campaign rhetoric, akin to John F. Kennedy's reference to himself either as a native of Berlin or a jelly doughnut.

But Obama is forced, by the historic nature of his very self, to work the issue of race in a way no one else does. It may not be fair, but it is fact that he must acknowledge race while making an attempt to transcend it. He might well be one of the most multi-ethnic public figures we've ever had, with genetic roots in America and Africa, and cultural roots in Asia as well. And that is not something that is either particularly good or bad.

Terming himself a desi, however, runs the risk of trivializing the matter, of minimizing the great social change his election would represent. Just as Tiger Woods came off as callow when he referred to himself as "Cablinasian" (Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian), so too does Obama. How about this, Senator, just focus on being the best American you can be, and leave the special interests, whether based on economics or politics or race, behind. Do what's right for this country, because the groups will drag you down and hurt your credibility.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Michael Phelps and H-1Bs

So let's say you have to hire someone for a programming job, and here's how you go about it. You put an ad in the paper stating that you have such a job, and then 100 people come in. You don't talk to them in any depth, don't consider whatever experience or aptitude they might have, but you put them at 100 workstations and put them to work on various problems you have. You don't pay them anything, but, over time, maybe a great deal of time, you realize which of them is the best one, and that's the one you hire.

There are big problems with this, which is why we don't use this method. First, who's going to go for this? I enjoy programming, but I wouldn't sit in a room solving problems for free, waiting to see if I'll get hired. More importantly, there's no guarantee that you'll end up with someone even minimally competent. You might, you might not. Since you probably won't, you're wasting your time.

What you do, assuming you're trying to find the best person for the job, is to recruit in places that might have potential employees who know what they're doing. You screen resumes, conduct interviews, possibly give a programming test. You try to maximize the probability that you're selecting from a pool of high-potential candidates, then you try to select the single best person out of that pool. And this is such a natural way to do this that we rarely think about it.

But we select our Olympic athletes the first way. We open a pool, or a gymnastics school, and, if we're lucky, Michael Phelps or Shawn Johnson wanders in. A lot more luck later, they become Olympic champions. We allow private enterprise to determine where the school is located, and we let fortune dictate whether or not the individual ever gets there.

And, since we fundamentally don't care if we get a Michael Phelps (no, we don't; we may thrill to his accomplishments, but, if he didn't exist, we would feel no loss - five gold medals, six gold medals, what's the difference?), this system works fine for us. It demands nothing from us. If the Johnsons want to mortgage their house to keep Shawn on the balance beam, they can go ahead - means nothing to me one way or the other.

If you did care, however.... Let's say you were given the job of increasing the number of swimming medals the U.S. wins. Your livelihood and your children's future depend on seeing gold, silver, and bronze draped around wet Americans. Would you:
a) Work hard to encourage people to build swimming pools at random places around the country, then just sit back and hope that kids who are genetically blessed wander in and start to take lessons, or;
b) Go out and try to identify kids who have the makeup to become great swimmers, have the requisite shoulder and ankle flexibility and other qualities, then send them to existing training facilities that could enhance and hone their skills?

Of course, you would choose b), you would have to. But that's what the Soviets and East Germans did, and that's what the Chinese are doing now, and we all feel a little queasy about that. It goes against the American ideal of individual choice, of allowing everyone to do what they want regardless of ability. "You can be whatever you want to be" is a far better motto than "E pluribus unum." There might be 10 or 100 more Michael Phelps out there in the U.S., and we'll never know it. They're off cooking or knitting or mountain biking, fulfilling their desires rather than maximizing their gifts.

It's fairly clear, however, that, for things we truly value, for which we're accountable, we take a more proactive approach. China's done so with respect to the Olympics, and they're winning medals left and right, and they've also done so in training engineers, just as India has chosen to work toward dominance in software and call center jobs.

What does this have to do with H-1B visas? Here in the U.S., we take approach a), where we just allow in a clump of workers who've demonstrated little more than the ability to earn a college degree, and assume that, out of thousands, some number of them will have the entrepreneurial bent necessary to build the companies of the future.

Grandpa John not only doesn't see a problem with that, he supports more of the same. From his campaign website:
John McCain will expand the number of H-1B visas to allow our companies to keep top-notch talent – often trained in our graduate schools – in the United States....For every foreign worker hired, corporations generally hire five to ten additional American workers.
[Link pointed out by the invaluable Job Destruction Newsletter.]

I'm not sure what's more disheartening here, that McCain believes that the H-1B visa program is geared around the desire to find "top-notch talent," or that his staff is inflating the results of a flawed regression study, which found that each H-1B application generates 5 to 6 new jobs (a ridiculous result, implying that we only need to apply for visas in order to employ the entire country, and ignoring the reality that the largest H-1B companies are Indian outsourcing firms).

Sure, it's possible that by letting thousands more immigrants into the country, without any additional screening other than "got a college degree," we will find the next founder of a Microsoft or an Intel, creating industries that will generate millions of jobs. But setting this up as a crapshoot, praying that the person is out there who will bring untold wealth to the U.S., is as quixotic as building a pool in the middle of South Dakota and just praying that the next Michael Phelps will wander in.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Stupid rules

  1. Shawn Johnson, United States
  2. Nastia Liukin, United States
  3. Yang Yilin, China
  4. Ksenia Semenova, Russia
  5. Anna Pavlova, Russia
  6. Ksenia Afanaseva, Russia
  7. Jiang Yuyuan, China
  8. Steliana Nistor, Romania
  9. Deng Linlin, China
  10. Ekaterina Kramarenko, Russia
  11. Bridget Sloan, United States
  12. Jade Barbosa, Brazil
  13. Sandra Izbasa, Romania
  14. Oksana Chusovitina, Germany
  15. Shona Morgan, Australia
  16. Anamaria Tamirjan, Romania
  17. Koko Tsurumi, Japan
  18. Georgia Bonora, Australia
  19. Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, Canada
  20. Marine Petit, France
  21. Vanessa Ferrari, Italy
  22. Laetitia Dugain, France
  23. Lia Parolari, Italy
  24. Becky Downie, Great Britain
This is the list of the top 24 qualifiers for the all-around competition in Women's Gymnastics at the Olympics, and the top 24 get to move on to the competition. (I recognize this isn't very timely. What can I do, I've got a life, of sorts, too.) Now if you watched the NBC coverage of the all-around, you didn't see all these women (OK, if you watched NBC's coverage, you saw seven or eight of the 24, but there were others).

In particular, you might be wondering what happened to Bridget Sloan. Since she's American, you would think that NBC would have been putting their cameras right in her face, but you didn't see her at all. That's because she wasn't there.

The rules state that only two gymnasts from each nation can compete in the all-around. This was done in the past to prevent the Soviets from taking the top six places. (There are similar rules for the individual apparatus finals.) I have crossed out the names of top 24 qualifiers who didn't make the all-around because they happened to have two teammates who did better. Here's the list of the five who got in, along with their qualifying position:

Ariella Kaslin, Switzerland (25)
Kyoko Oshima, Japan (27)
Kristyna Palesova, Czech Republic (26)
Ana Silva, Brazil (28)
Gaelle Mys, Belgium (31)

In other words, we got to enjoy the 31st-best gymnast in the world, while the 6th-best sat back in the Olympic Village. Bridget Sloan, who got short shrift from NBC because she had the least-exciting back story (she wasn't one of the two glamor girls, wasn't the one who just missed the 2004 team, wasn't the gutsy team-leader grandma, and didn't have the "tragic" last-second injury; she was just kind of there), was done with the Games despite being 11th-best.

Here's why this story resonates with me. When I was in high school, I finished second in the region (I think it was four states plus Ontario) on a national mathematics test. The top three received plaques commemorating their achievement. You probably want me to include a picture of my shiny plaque in this blog post, right?

But I can't. I was second to a teammate, and the rules were that they only gave plaques to one person from a school. So "my" plaque went to someone else, and the third-place plaque...hey, that's funny, too, because it was another one of my teammates who finished fourth, so that went to the fifth-place finisher (how do you put that up in your rec room? Someone asks, saying, wow, you finished third?, and you have to explain that, no, you finished fifth, but they gave you the one for third.).

Everyone claims they want less jingoistic nationalism in sports, then we ignore rules that elevate the team over the individual, even in an individual event. Similarly, we allow only two swimmers from each nation into each event, so the third-best butterflyer can be left at home.

I understand the counter-argument, that we can't have the USA going 1 through 8 in the 200-meter freestyle, that it would hurt the reputation of the sport and make it hard to build interest in other nations.

But these are supposed to be the fulfillment of individual dreams, and a celebration of the best in the world. It isn't Ksenia Afanasyeva's fault that she came in behind Semenova and Pavlova, she should get to compete, and the viewer shouldn't be prevented from seeing her.

(I accept that this argument, taken to its fullest, would imply that the basketball tournament should be made up of the 12 best NBA teams. To me, this argues more for eliminating basketball from the Olympics, not for supporting the inclusion of a terrible team from Angola, simply because they're the best in Africa.

And, obviously, the Olympics can make up whatever rules they want to, can try to achieve goals that are not about fairness. If the powers that be believe that the sport of gymnastics is bettered by allowing Gaelle Mys into the all-around over Afanasyeva, that's their business. But then we need to stop pretending that's it's all about extolling the best in human endeavor, because that's clearly not all it's about.)

Two suggestions for beach volleyball

I, like so many, have thrilled to the excitement of Olympic beach volleyball, in which two people flail about an uncertain surface, hitting the ball in fairly predictable ways. I'm not sure why water volleyball and snow volleyball have not also been added - snow to the Winter Olympics, of course, so we wouldn't have to endure four long years between recitations of every biographical detail of the lives of Misty May and Kerri Walsh.

But I have two suggestions that will improve the women's version of the sport, taking it beyond its already wild popularity.

1) Every team should have the foresight of the Brazilians. They are smart enough to label one part of their uniforms as to its purpose, because I imagine it must be difficult to distinguish between the two halves, as they are both so small. But the Brazilians, canny veterans of beach volleyball that they are, save valuable preparation time by putting B R A right on their tops - very smart, indeed.

2) When you have a nearly unbeatable team like May and Walsh, the tension is quite diminished. After two weeks of pretty repetitive action, even the most ardent fan can get dulled. So here's what they can do.

In the first match, the women wear shorts cut like those the men wear. Beach shorts, to be sure, so the less-athletically interested fan can enjoy the sculpted legs. Then, for each subsequent match, a half-inch or so is cut away. By the finals, the women are wearing thongs, giving the viewer some reward for sitting through the tournament (ooh, Sandy Thongs, and you wonder where the great adult-film actresses of the future will get their names). That's gotta goose the ratings.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill de book.
Won't you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? -
cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom. (Bob Marley - Redemption Song)
I said yesterday (I'm not sure if my wife heard it, I may have been talking to myself - I do that a lot while contemplating Olympics coverage) that it would take no time before Al Trautwig said that Alicia Sacramone would be looking for redemption in the vault finals in gymnastics. (Alicia's the young woman who fell off the balance beam while competing in the team qualifications, possibly costing the American "women" the team gold medal.)

As it turned out, I didn't even have to wait for Al, as the announcer promoted the event by intoning, "Alicia Sacramone looks for redemption in the vault final."

Let's look at the definitions for the word "redemption" (we'll actually look at "redeem").
  • To recover ownership of something by paying a sum.
  • To set free, rescue or ransom.
  • To save from a state of sin (and from its consequences).
  • To restore the reputation or honour of oneself or something.
(By the way, these are all transitive, so Alicia can't really look for redemption, she can only hope to redeem herself.)

Neither of the first two seems to apply here, though one does wonder if the Chinese team might favor one of these ("Win gold, or your family disappears under the Three Gorges Dam!"). So we're left with one of the latter two definitions.

"Redemption" is actually one of my pet peeves, as it is a word used to describe any opportunity to do well after having done poorly. Sports announcers use it all the time now, in their usual effort to create drama where the actual drama likely suffices. I don't come from a particularly religious background, but "redemption" has, at least to me, always carried fairly strong religious overtones, one of the reasons the Bob Marley song I quoted above has such resonance.

That leads us to the third definition, that of saving someone from a state of sin. The wide receiver who drops a ball, the slugger who strikes out, Sacramone, they probably aren't being given the opportunity to do that. Given the false importance with which we weigh down our fun and games, we can't rule this out as the relevant definition, but I prefer to think we're not that quite gone.

So we come to the last, "To restore the reputation or honour of oneself or something." (Yes, it's a British definition, but it's the most concise and complete I found.) This is very likely the one that the commentators intend to use, but it is at least as irrelevant as any other.

To anyone other than gymnastics fans, Alicia Sacramone had no reputation until the NBC cameras first focused on her in Beijing. Yes, she's wearing a USA uniform, but that, in and of itself, doesn't give us the right to assign any particular expectations to her.

If she has no reputation, then there is no need for her to restore it. She owes us nothing, save perhaps an honest effort, certainly not a certain score on the balance beam. I've done nothing for Alicia Sacramone, so my job is simply to admire what she does without placing the burden of my hopes and dreams on her.

If Sacramone feels she needs to redeem herself in the eyes of her parents, who have supported her all the years of her life, or for her coach, who has given untold hours toward her success (but was paid for it), that's between her and them. My guess is that this Brown student who has also found the time to pursue a world-class gymnastics career has already paid them many times over, but that's their business.

To trot out a word of such importance and serious import, and misapply it so casually, actually makes me a bit queasy when I hear it. Alicia's accomplished more "for" the United States than most 20-year-olds, and she has a right to fail or succeed without feeling as if she's let 300 million Americans down, the vast majority of whom never heard of her before a week ago.

(By the way, there are a number of articles on the Web implying that there should be some consolation for Sacramone in being Googled for her hotness. I don't know her, of course, but I'm guessing that she's not quite so shallow as to see the search histories of adolescent minds as replacement for a lifelong dream that didn't turn out as she had hoped.)


One thing the new Web 2.0 world has brought us is the ability to take in other people's opinions as we never have before. We read blogs, comments on blogs, comments on comments, comments on newspaper articles, and on and on. I don't know that we have any greater insight into one another than we did before, as this mass of opinion, mostly uninformed, washes over us, but we at the least gain appreciation for the stark differences that happen inside our respective heads.

I've had some opportunity to think about this since I started writing this blog, as the act of expressing my thoughts has required a sharpening of those thoughts. That said, I have also developed a greater appreciation of which things I would term core beliefs, and those which are not so firmly held. Sometimes that's in response to a challenge, a comment on the blog perhaps, other times that comes out of my own thought processes. I admit there are times I will write something that I am not 100% behind, mainly to see how I really feel about it.

There are only a very few things I believe that could not change in response to convincing evidence to the contrary; I like to think I'm at least that open. I'm loath to take personal ownership of an idea unless it comes out of my core. When I wrote last week that I hesitate to regard Michael Phelps as the all-time greatest Olympian, I certainly believed that (and continue to do so). But that is not so strong a belief as to get me to desert other core values; if I were at a dinner party, and someone contended that Phelps was the greatest, I wouldn't storm out in a huff, as politeness dictates respect for others' opinions. (On the other hand, if someone espoused infanticide, I probably would leave as quickly as possible. I am far more opposed to baby killing than I am to the idea of Phelps as greatest Olympian.)

Apparently, others don't see it that way. Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, one of the most respected international sportswriters around, wrote a story last Friday along the same lines as my above-referenced post, that Phelps is not (yet) the best Olympic athlete ever. Hersh picks Phelps #6, with Carl Lewis 1st, Paavo Nurmi 2nd, and so on. (He also quotes David Wallechinsky to the effect that Nurmi and Lewis are co-#1.)

Hersh has covered international sports for the Tribune for 21 years, and has covered 14 Olympics. He makes it clear that these views are his opinion, that Phelps still has a chance to move up in his estimation if he extends his achievements. But others see it differently, as expressed by a couple of letters in the Saturday Tribune:
Shame on Philip Hersh and the Chicago Tribune for reflecting on a superior athlete like Michael Phelps this way. Phelps is the best athlete who ever competed in the Olympics, and the best the U.S. ever brought up. This is acknowledged by millions of people. (George Aygar, Chicago)

With all that Michael Phelps is accomplishing, the training this young man has experienced, the sacrifice, the dedication to his sport - and all Phil Hersh can do is write a column saying how poorly he ranks among other athletes?
Poor taste, Phil. And poor judgment by the Tribune for running it.
Get a grip, Phil. Find the good in this man's accomplishments and write an appropriate column. (Maddie and Jack Smith, Wheaton)
Leaving aside the specious logic of the letter writers, I wonder at the passion. Calling such an article out for "shame" or for "poor taste," does this not demonstrate a complete lack of perspective from the writers? The sense of ownership these people feel about an issue that can have no real effect on their lives is remarkable.

Are these just two examples of people trying to make themselves heard by yelling louder than anyone else (and it works, their letters were published)? Or do they really feel Hersh is tasteless in picking Phelps as the sixth greatest Olympian ever? Either way, it makes one fear for the future of intelligent discourse.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Setting expectations

The Olympics have me ruminating on the extent that a superior performance conditions us to expect even more in the future, to the point where we miss great accomplishments. Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals in 1972, and that became the standard by which we measured all subsequent Olympians. Win four gold medals, and you're called "good, but no Mark Spitz." Let someone hit 68 home runs in baseball, which would be absolutely fantastic, but five short of Barry Bonds, and it will seem ho-hum.

I suppose this is natural, and even one of the ways we encourage people to do better in the future, but it relegates some pretty great feats to seeming insignificance. And it can put inappropriate pressure on people who have done great things - do we look at Michael Phelps, after he puts away his 18th gold in London in 2012 and ask, "Michael, since Dara Torres swam until she was 41, will you be back through 2024?" Maybe we will.

We make comparisons, it helps us put things in perspective and appreciate the truly outstanding (I do it myself). But we should try not to get so carried away that we ignore some marvelous events around us. The guy who wins five golds in London won't be a disappointment because he didn't match Phelps or Spitz; he will have done something remarkable, and, not out of fairness but because we need a sense of awe in our lives, we should enjoy it, and appreciate it, and feel good about it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

It seems obvious

I forget how often I take my own knowledge for granted, how I forget that others with different experience do not understand the things I do. It's daunting, not the least reason being that I end up wondering what things everyone else knows that I don't. (Since I don't know that I don't know them, I can safely avoid discussing them in this post.)

Kevin Drum writes of a post by Yves Smith at naked capitalism about working:
The problem with having narrow skills, like being able to structure CDOs, is that if you lose your job, your employment prospects are limited. Unless you have personal connections that are willing to give you a chance at something where your skills might be distantly relevant (say being the CFO of a small company), most employers, especially large companies, want to hire someone who is already doing precisely what the job calls for. I've seen enormously talented senior people (and I don't mean from Wall Street) unable to land jobs because employers write the job specifications so narrowly.
The impetus for Smith's post is the current situation on Wall Street, where jobs are disappearing and well-paid MBAs are having some trouble finding work at the same salaries. Smith makes it clear in comments that he is not limiting this discussion to finance jobs, going on to say:
Without thinking very hard, I can name at least 20 people, all over the age of 40, all with good backgrounds and good reputations, who were unable to get another job at anything remotely resembling what they did before. Some tried consulting, one bought a franchise business, which means they all turned to forms of self employment. Many retired at a more modest standard of living than they would have liked (those tended to have a working spouse that made this option more viable).
Is any of this news to anyone? I guess so. I have lived so long in the gutter of "well-degreed, well-experienced, over 40, and underemployed" that I find it hard to understand there is anyone who doesn't know about this now. But we still see posts like this, and we still hear from people who think the key is ever-more education for young people, while we ignore the plight of those who have proven abilities.

Here's something I've tried out of desperation: Tell the hiring manager that your salary expectations truly are open, that you understand what the market is about, and that your previous compensation has nothing to do with the next job. Big surprise - that doesn't work.

At the same time, we hear business leaders lamenting the impending retirement of the baby boomers, which is not a real concern. It's just another smokescreen to cover up the desire to outsource and offshore, to claim that American workers are no good. As long as we accept this garbage, it will continue, and we will continue to utilize some of our best talent (even if it doesn't have the 3.4 years of Java specified in the job description).

Friday, August 15, 2008


Truth is very much in the news this week, with numerous reports coming out of the Olympics about misleading aspects of the Opening Ceremonies and questions about the ages of Chinese girl gymnasts. There is a new book out about Barack Obama; it's going to be a bestseller even though it states things that are demonstrably false, and the author admits his "goal is to defeat Obama." Every day, polls come out, and the media dutifully reports on them in the most misleading way. The Chicago Tribune (and I'm really not trying to pick on them) prints a letter today:

The term "recession" is well-defined and leaves no room for debate:

It is two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the American economy.

Letter writers and the many columnists and pundits who write for the Chicago Tribune should be reminded of this fact.

They should realize that no matter how often they write it or say it or repeat it, a recession hasn't happened.

Their dislike of the current administration doesn't justify falsely portraying the facts of the economy.

As a semi-frequent reader of this blog will tell you (and I'll agree; my contention is different, and I'll not repeat it today), this is absolutely wrong. It is not a matter of opinion, and the Tribune should not be publishing this under the guise of presenting a point of view.

The Obama book is beneath contempt, and has been written about well by other writers (by Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast, among others). What is appalling is that this book has been published by Simon and Schuster, under the auspices of political whore Mary Matalin. (Timothy Noah at Slate does a good job of dismantling this here, and Joe Klein has some interesting comments here.) I've written about Matalin before, my objections to her are not political (I find her husband equally odious). It shocks me that she continues to be a respected part-time pundit, when her connection to the truth was severed the day she fell in love with Dick Cheney.

I'm sure I've had something to say about polls before, but a quick search didn't turn up anything. The media tends to mischaracterize poll results, it is clear that they don't understand them, and the public deserves better. First, there is a confidence interval attached to polls; it is not impossible that the pollster just happened on 418 people who all rabidly support Obama (just as it is possible for a coin to turn up heads 418 straight times). It isn't likely, but it can happen, which is why even the plus or minus 4 points you hear only represents a 95% probability.

Second, the increasingly irritating trope that any result within the margin of error is "a statistical tie." Kevin Drum has an interesting post on this. To sum up the post, if Obama leads McCain by 2% and the margin of error is 3%, this will be reported as a statistical tie. In truth, Obama has a 74% chance of being ahead.

But which of these does the public get exercised about? Of course, it's the revelation that the Opening Ceremonies featured a little girl singing who really wasn't, because the actual singer wasn't cute enough. And the Chinese gymnastics team may have faked ages of their "women's" gymnastics team to let fearless and flexible youngsters compete in contravention of the rules.

Which of these do you object to? Are these all wrong because they represent untruth, or does your opinion depend on your nationality or political party? We easily accept that Natalie Wood didn't sing in West Side Story (she looked more like a Maria than Marni Nixon, I guess). We ignore Bela Karolyi's solution to the age problem, even though he made it front-page news (he doesn't think there should be limits at all).

I don't have anything profound to say here. Once we start regarding the truth as relative, we open the door for all kinds of things. As long as we let each person determine where the line of "acceptable truth" is, we're going to have numerous versions of it. And that makes communication difficult, for if you define your truth, and I define mine, and they're far enough apart, we won't have any basis to talk at all. And that's what we see more and more in public life.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The beginning (or the middle) of the end

It's no secret that the Chicago Tribune is planning some substantial cuts, due to falling circulation and a need to pay back the massive debt accumulated in its acquisition. I suspect that I'm not alone in watching the newspaper closely for some evidence of what it will become, and it is with no small trepidation. There's always the possibility of reading too much into the tiniest bit of evidence, seeing something that last year would have seemed like a blip now regarded as proof that the paper is heading for destruction.

[By the way, I am not at all blind to the Tribune's faults, as should be clear to anyone who's read this blog for a while. Their slavish editorial support of the president has become an embarrassment, business coverage is monumentally shallow, and the sports coverage has increasingly bent toward becoming an adjunct of talk radio. But they still seem to have the objective of covering the world, and, whatever their faults, there are still good reporters and columnists pushing ahead with the desire to find and deliver truth.]

However, when the evidence begins to pile up, one has to start drawing conclusions. Several Tribune employees have accepted buyouts (no, I have no idea why one has to read the religion blog to read the list of names), and it's a pretty experienced and distinguished list. I don't recognize all the names, not being familiar with the work of editors, but the names I do know represent a great loss, and the buzz is that there are more to come.

(That they accepted buyouts does not mitigate the loss. Having been through and near quite a few situations like this in my own work life, I can tell the lucky few who haven't that it is almost always smart to take a proffered buyout. Unless you are 99% sure that your management will be able to right the course once they toss a few overboard, the buyouts will likely be followed by force-outs, and the compensation will be less - plus, you're likely to be in a job market already filled with your colleagues.)

But it's always possible that the paper will figure out how to do more with less, that the people who have left are duplicative in some way, that standards will be upheld.

Then we look at the Tribune's Olympic coverage from Beijing, and it is far less than it has been before. Reduced in size, reduced in scope, seeking out the most obvious stories, there have clearly been bean-counters at work here. (Keep in mind that the major cuts are supposed to come at the end of next month.)

Yesterday, readers turn to the op-ed page, and are faced with a near-half page article titled, Top 10 songs on their iPods right now: You be the judge. Various local and national figures, including McCain and Obama, are surveyed for the contents of their iPods. This is, remember, supposed to be a page for informed commentary in one of the best newspapers in the nation, a forum for ideas and opinions.

Instead, we find out that McCain has a weakness for ABBA, and that the governor of Illinois is really into Elvis (well, that's fitting, since it is almost certain that, after the next election, Governor Hot Rod will have left the building). This is a feature that, in a serious publication, would have trouble making it into the Tempo (what some papers call Lifestyle) section. (And let's agree not to notice that these song choices are undoubtedly vetted and camapign-approved, so they do not reveal anything about the preferences of these people.)

And today readers were treated to a Tempo story about a Tribune reporter and her best friend, how they met in a dance class and bonded over the music of Melissa Etheridge (the reporter hastens to add that the bonding has nothing to do with the gay thing). There's a huge picture of the two best buds in front of the theater where Melissa is playing, and I'm just sure they did each other's hair before going out.

The thing is, you end up reading the whole article, waiting for the hook, the touching part where her best friend gets cancer or is killed in Hurricane Katrina, anything that will give this some resonance past, "We're best pals, we've been there for each other, and we love to rock out to Melissa."

And it's just not there. What is there reads like a poorly-written teenage diary, the climax being the point at which the reporter admits to her friend that she still dreams about the friend's bedroom, the one she had when she was 10: "The pink rose Laura Ashley curtains and comforters. The queen-size white brass bed. The closet, oh, the closet. It took up an entire wall, floor to ceiling, and was beautifully organized." And her friend does too. Then Melissa sings, the friends cry and hug, and we finish with: "We cheered for her—and for us."


I'm not saying every publication has to be relentlessly serious, that there isn't room for lighter fare. But it seems clear that the Tribune offered buyouts to at least one too many editors, because tripe like this doesn't belong in a high school newspaper.

If this is the way the Chicago Tribune is going, and it is just one of the news sources that are heading down this path, I fear for the quality of information we're going to be receiving.

Coming up on NBC...

we hope, really really hope, that Michael Phelps will sign our yearbooks!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Phelps, the greatest?

I marvel at the accomplishments of Michael Phelps; he's doing things that are almost unimaginable, taking on the best in the world and beating them in world-record time. As of this writing, he is at five gold medals in Beijing, eleven overall, possibly heading toward eight during this week.

The eleven golds are the most ever won, beating the old record of nine, and has led to NBC's incessant touting of Phelps as the greatest Olympian ever (and any and all associated superlatives the announcers can think of). We're now free to forget about Mark Spitz, American swimmer, Carl Lewis, American sprinter and long jumper, Larissa Latynina, Soviet gymnast, and Paavo Nurmi, Finnish distance runner.

But, can we say that Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever, that he has exceeded the accomplishments of every single great athlete who has ever gone to the Games? I don't think we can say that, and I don't believe it's even a meaningful question.

Karch Kiraly won two gold medals in indoor volleyball in 1984 and 1988, then won another in beach volleyball in 1996. Every time he went to the Olympics, he won every gold he had a chance to win. What more could he have done? Unless the rules of volleyball are changed to permit the potential winning of eight golds in a single Games, there is no way to compare.

In so many sports, there is no opportunity to win multiple golds. In swimming, if you are good, it's almost impossible not to. The multiple events which differ only slightly in terms of skills needed to succeed, added to the existence of multiple relays, there's no way to compare any other Olympic sport to it.

100 years ago, Ray Ewry won the last of his eight gold medals over three Olympic Games (ten if you count results from the not-quite-official 1906 Games). All of them were in standing jumps, the kind of thing we did in gym class, but they're no longer contested in the Olympics. However, what if there had been team standing high jump, long jump, and triple jump? Ewry might well have won eight more. What if there had been medley jumping, another competition I just made up that adds together results of all three? Ewry could have won three more. What if there had been team medley jumping? Another three. It is not inconceivable that Ray Ewry, if track and field were organized like swimming, could have won a career 22 gold medals.

So let's just enjoy the exploits of Phelps, who is by any measure one of the greatest athletes ever. But any short list of the greatest Olympians of all time would not be short at all (no one even mentions Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country skier who won eight golds). It might be fun to sit around and debate, but let's not passively accept NBC's decision in the matter; after all, they please none of their sponsors if they contend that Ray Ewry is the greatest Olympian ever.

Sullivan - II

Andrew Sullivan links to a Slate article by Jacob Leibenluft, but the link doesn't work, and I can't find the full article. Nonetheless, and at the risk of misrepresentation, I quote the quote:
The bigger danger from the push for drilling—or more exactly, the arguments used on its behalf—may be how it affects our own behavior. If we pretend that offshore drilling is a fail-safe means of lowering oil prices (or even a likely means), we may hold on to rosy and unreasonable expectations for future gas prices...That will in turn change the calculations we make when it comes to long-term decisions like whether to shell out extra cash for a more fuel-efficient car or a home with access to mass transit. As long as we're counting on gas prices to go down, those green lifestyle choices won't seem as attractive. We may well be surprised once again that we're paying so much at the pump, without having done anything about it.
There's a more general point here, that current actions and policies create an expectation for the future, which conditions current decisions. This is true of every policy that is followed by our government, whether it be in economics, energy, or taxes. If you believe that the capital gains tax rate is going up, you'll make different decisions from those you'd make otherwise. If you believe that we will adopt Al Gore's policy of the elimination of all carbon-based energy in 10 years, you'll make different decisions.

This is the source of our worst kind of corruption. Someone is in a position to know something about a change to a law or a zoning regulation or approval of a TIF, and sells that information to someone who can profit from it. But that's small potatoes.

What's worse is when faux-populist policies are created, and the mass of people respond accordingly. Leibenluft's point is clear - if we sell offshore drilling as the answer to our energy problems, people will believe that and continue burning oil, but, more importantly, they won't support efforts to find other sources of energy. Other countries will continue that research, and we will end up dependent on foreign nations for our energy...sound familiar? (Hillary Clinton's gas-tax holiday suffered from the same weakness.)

If you believe that a war in Iraq can be fought and won in two months, you might well support it; if told it will take more than five years, followed by a 50- or 100-year occupation, you might not. (One of the more noxious aspects of the Bush administration is its unwillingness to understand this, its belief that it has a mandate to do whatever it wants regardless of changes in conditions.)

In baseball, each home-plate umpire tends to have a strike zone that is merely close to the one specified in the rules. Every player will tell you that the important thing is that the judgment remains constant throughout the game, not that a strike exactly conforms to the letter of the law.

Quite often, a consistent strategy, even if flawed, is superior to a changing strategy, no matter how optimal it might be proven to be.

Sullivan - I

From Andrew Sullivan on Russia invading Georgia vs. the U.S. invading Iraq:
Just imagine if the press were to discover a major jail in Gori, occupied by the Russians, where hundreds of Georgians had been dragged in off the streets and tortured and abused? What if we discovered that the orders for this emanated from the Kremlin itself? And what if we had documentary evidence of the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive practices against the vulnerable as the standard operating procedure of the Russian army - because the prisoners were suspected of resisting the occupying power?...It seems to me that, in these circumstances, the question of moral equivalence becomes a live one. When an American president has violated two centuries of civilized norms, how could it not be, for any serious person with a conscience?
I wrote about this a couple of days ago, and I have found it interesting to follow the discussion in the blogging world. There are two basic camps: those who feel as I do that the U.S. has lost all standing in making comments about this, and those who feel that the U.S. is still better because of its principles and needs to keep speaking out.

Now, I keep up enough to know that Russian troops have backed off, that the crisis is essentially over. So you may think that the issue is moot, that this post and Sullivan's are superfluous.

But this will come up again and again, and it's going to be important to figure out where we stand on this. Maybe the change in president will allow us to reset, to engage the world relatively free of the Iraq baggage...but I doubt it.

I don't know what we have to do to regain our moral standing, but I am very uneasy lecturing the rest of the world about anything given our willingness to interfere with other countries and our unwillingness to change anything we do. I do believe that my country has still been, over the years, a force for good in the world, and we should be proud of that, but recent events (almost everything that has happened at home and abroad during the Bush administration) has made me wary about our ability to act as a moral exemplar. Sullivan:
The point here is not that the invasions are obviously morally equivalent. The point is that the line between American actions in the world and Russia's are no longer as stark as they once were. Once you trash the international system, declare yourself above the law and even the most basic of international conventions against war crimes, you have forfeited the kind of moral authority that the US once had. Bush and his cronies speak as if none of this has happened. Their rigid, absolutist denial even of the bleeding obvious allows them to preach to the world about international norms that, when they would have constrained American actions, were derided as quaint and irrelevant. You really cannot have it both ways.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back to the pool

Another Olympic post. I really haven't heard anything about swimming pool technology during these Olympics. It used to be that there would be a quick piece at the beginning of coverage as to how modern science was finding ways to make faster and faster pools. I may have missed it, but I haven't seen that piece during the current coverage (nor do I recall it at Athens or Sydney).

Is it possible that someone feels the magnificence of the athletes would be diminished if it was pointed out that Olympic and world records were being broken as much due to engineering as to the heroic sacrifice and effort of the young men and women? We've heard about the new swimsuits because the issue bubbled into controversy, but I do wonder: Are pools as good as they can be, or are records falling because everyone is, in effect, swimming downhill in both directions? It would be nice to know.

The "Family" of John McCain

If you've been watching the Olympics, you've undoubtedly seen the McCain ad, "Family," in which an announcer says:
Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family? The real Obama promises higher taxes, more government spending, so fewer jobs. Renewable energy to transform our economy, create jobs and energy independence, that's John McCain.
There are at least three interesting themes here. The first is the continuation of the Paris Hilton/Britney Spears idea that Obama is nothing more than a celebrity, an empty suit. That it is more than likely that McCain's amazing comeback in the Republican race was based on his own celebrity, his personal narrative of heroism and bravery, is an inconvenient fact, one that the McCain campaign feels we'll forget.

The second is this persistent idea that Obama is, horrifyingly enough, a person "in the world." I'm getting a real feeling that McCain simply can't get rid of the idea that American strength comes only in opposition to other world forces, whether it be Islamic terrorism or, well, anything else. The problem with this approach is that it can easily lead to a kind of grinding paranoia. Being blind to the self-interest of others is naive; assuming that you can never have a common interest with others is crazy and dangerous.

The third is the economic part of the message. I've already written a lot about the questionable logic behind the inevitability of new energy creating new jobs, most recently here. So, today, I'll discuss the first part, that higher taxes and more government spending create fewer jobs.

I have written before that I am a lapsed Republican, that the party itself has betrayed its traditional message and has left me (and many others) behind in its rush to suspect economics theory and rigid social orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I am not a big supporter of government intervention in things that it cannot possibly make better, but it can be a useful adjuct to capitalism in situations where the market fails to provide proper incentives (it's clear, at least to me, that health care is an area in which we've given the market ample opportunity to succeed, but the goal of universal coverage simply isn't one that the market will ever attain - not without outside shaping).

Having said that, I can't go along with the "logic" that government spending necessarily creates fewer jobs. The question is, what is the money that is generated by economic activity used for? What we have seen is that the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of corporations and their executives has not improved the overall economy. Those jobs that are being created are appearing in other countries, not this one. The market for foreign luxury goods is strong, but it's difficult to see how that helps the American middle and lower classes.

If government spending is directed toward things like rebuilding our problematic infrastructure (as Robert Reich and others recommend), that would create actual American jobs. They may not exactly be the kind of jobs that politicians like to promise, and they will not keep us "competitive" in future technology; we can argue endlessly about how much of it we should do, where we should direct our resources.

But it's absolutely true that the logic, government spending leads to fewer jobs, is unsupportable. It is one of those "answers" that leads to more questions, and is just the kind of thing that we need less of in our political campaigns. I'm not hopeful that either campaign will see it my way.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Yet another energy gripe

I just heard a commercial, I didn't catch for what, that repeated the canard that new energy = new jobs. I've written about that enough lately.

But it also said something I've heard before, that we should take advantage of free energy sources like wind. This is highly misleading. Oil is free, it's right down there in the ground. What we're paying for is the conversion of it into something useful; in particular, it has to be here instead of underground, it needs to be transported, it needs to be converted into various products.

Wind similarly needs to be converted into usable form. Windmills (or wind tunnels) need to be built to grab the wind, the generated energy needs to be transported to a place where it will be useful, and these steps cost money. (We also tend to ignore the other benefits that come from petroleum, like plastics, things that will have to be replaced by something else.)

Wind may be more cost-effective than petroleum, and it may represent money that will be retained in this country instead of being sent to other countries - that's the case that can and should be made.

But it is false PR to contend that wind or geothermal or water power is's not. I understand we need to minimize the costs of new energy in order to sell it to a skeptical public. But, if these things were really free, we'd already be using them, wouldn't we?

Zhingle all the way

[Note: I wrote the following before I did my research. I'll put another note at the end with some links.]

It is a source of enduring irritation to me that the large majority of commentators, whether NBC's or on local news, persist in calling the Olympic host city, Bei-zhing. Because that's not how it's pronounced at all; just as it's spelled in the pinyin system, it's Bei-jing. Jing, as in "jingle," not zhing, with the sound of the second 'g' in "garage."

I know that older systems like Wade-Giles confused Westerners, as the notation was often not reflective of the actual Chinese sounds. But pinyin is far superior, and can be taken in most cases (not all - the name "Mo" is pronounced more like "maw" than like the Stooge) as accurate, leaving aside the unpleasantness of the tonal system.

So it's Bei-jing, with a 'j.' And what is really odd to me is that 'j' is far more common in English than "zh," which tends to show up in words that came from French like "garage" or "measure." We should greatly prefer Bei-jing, but we don't. Is it a desire for faux foreignness? A tendency to assume that nothing in Chinese is pronounced precisely as it's written? I just don't know.

[End note: It turns out I wasn't the first to notice this. Language Hat has an item here, with interesting comments. There are comments on MSNBC about this. If you want to see several more, Google "beijing beizhing."]


This is not the post to enumerate the things I haven't liked about the Bush administration. I'll admit, I was a lukewarm supporter in the 2000 campaign, the Clinton/Gore administration not exactly overwhelming me with awe. I saw that he was a limited man, but felt that he would reach into Dad's Rolodex and surround himself with people who knew what they were doing. I was completely wrong, Cheney and Rumsfeld turned out to be more scary than competent, and, while I'm not in the camp that believes that eight years of Al Gore would have been milk and honey, I have certainly come to regret that support.

If there's one thing, though, that I can pick out of the rubble that is U.S. foreign policy in 2008 to criticize, it is our total lack of ability to take the high road. There has always been a certain amount of pomposity (and, to a degree, hypocrisy) in our dictating to the rest of the world what is and isn't acceptable behavior. It's facile to wander about the globe, pointing out human rights violations and the like, while we conveniently forget our record on slavery and civil rights. To criticize other countries for building their economies in the same way we did, when we renounced such behaviors only after we already had some security and wealth, is too easy, and has long created tension with other nations.

However, presenting the ideal has fallen to us, and, despite some clear logical problems, we have fulfilled that role.

But, at this time, after eight years of chipping away at Constitutional rights, the approval of torture, our inability to do anything systemic about our disproportional share of energy use, the consignment of our own people to go without medical care because our wealthy nation "can't afford it," and, most importantly, our invasion and occupation of a country that never attacked us, we have lost any moral standing to decide what is and isn't acceptable by other countries. This is the saddest legacy of the Bush administration, that the nation that has done the most to improve conditions in the world is now forced either to stand idly by while bad things occur, or rage impotently, standing on no legs at all.

At least, that was my reaction to President Bush when he was interviewed by Bob Costas during yesterday's Olympic coverage. (Added note: I noticed that the Dallas News transcript to which I linked was edited. Oddly enough, the White House transcript is better.) My first visceral reaction was one of extreme discomfort to see the famous Bush smirk when the conversation got serious, but maybe it's time I forgave the president for that - maybe it really is just a kind of facial tic, an unconscious pattern of response (no less inappropriate, however; has no one ever told Bush that the smirk is supercilious and makes him look uncaring or ignorant?).

No, what was worse was Bush's reaction to Costas's question about the Russian invasion of Georgia (side note: we see all too little of the full ability of Bob Costas. It used to show up on his late-night interview show, Later, now occupied by the mysteriously successful but completely unnecessary Carson Daly. He's knowledgeable about things beyond sports, and a very incisive interviewer. Maybe NBC should slide him over to Meet The Press, instead of giving it in dynastic succession to Luke Russert. And Costas could get away from having to chat it up with Cris Collinsworth.)

Costas asked, "What did you say to Putin?" Bush's answer:
I said this violence is unacceptable -- I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I've said it to the President of the country, Dmitriy Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying that the status quo ante for all troops should be August 6th. And, look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia....I was very firm with Vladimir Putin -- he and I have got a good relationship -- just like I was firm with the Russian President. And hopefully this will get resolved peacefully. There needs to be a international mediation there for the South Ossetia issue.
This is all well and good and, in an earlier time, would have seemed like a principled statement from an American president (leaving aside the unnecessary "good relationship" part; I'm not sure Putin is a guy we really want to buddy up to).

But what can Bush say that will seem remotely credible any more? His administration has done everything it can to extend executive power beyond anything in or intended in the Constitution. He has arrogated unto himself the right to do anything he wants, in total contravention of American or international law. Why would Putin or Medvedev or anyone else listen to this "do as I say, not as I do" garbage?

Realistically, we need to cooperate and compromise with increasing numbers of countries around the world. The global economy, for all its benefits, has made us reliant on other nations far more than before. Our leverage, once maximal, is now greatly reduced. So we can't get on our high horse about the practices of Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and on and on.

If you believe that the U.S. and its values are forces for good, then this is a disturbing trend. Our moral clarity, even if not 100% backed up by our own actions, was a beacon, a model for the way the world could be. If it sometimes came off as naive, well, someone had to do it, some nation had to provide the aspirational words.

But two trends, our interdependence and our own Bush-era indiscretions, have undercut any possibility of our being convincing when we try to impose our theoretic values on the rest of the world. We tell China that they shouldn't build their economy on the back of fossil fuels, while we do very little to reduce our own dependence. We tell Russia that they should leave Georgia alone, while we continue to insist that we won't leave Iraq until the job is done, whatever that is. We tell Iran that they shouldn't have nuclear weapons, while we do very little to get rid of our own and support India in their program.

Increasingly, and in different ways, the world is telling us to shut up. Because we've done so little to maintain our global standing, both moral and practical, we have to take it. Russia, no matter how warmly Putin feels toward Bush personally (no, I don't believe that for a second, either), isn't going to change its policy toward South Ossetia on our say-so; we just don't have that kind of standing any longer.

Maybe, in the long run, this is a good thing. Maybe having a better balance among the powers of the world will end up positive.

But it's hard not to see that as yet another loss for the United States, another example of the way we're letting our status diminish. You'll excuse me if I find that unfortunate.
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