Hogan's Alley

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wilco - Thanks I Get

If, like me, you have heard a very catchy tune as part of a new VW campaign, you may have wondered what the song was. It turns out that it is called "The Thanks I Get" by Wilco. The song was apparently recorded as part of the sessions that produced their excellent new album, "Sky Blue Sky". However, it was not included for some reason in the album as released.

I don't have a problem with the band using the VW commercials as a way of getting their work out to the public. I just wish there was a way to get hold of an decent audio version of the recorded song.

This video is a performance of the song done earlier this year, before "Sky Blue Sky" was released.

Update: The Youtube video above has now been removed. As an alternative, try this link to a performance captured in Chicago on 2/18/08 for as long as it is up. Thanks to commenter Brian F.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Big Lebowski - They Peed on my Rug

The Dude, Walter and Donnie set up the plot for the Coen Brothers superb California pastel update on film noir. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi shine. The timing is marvelous.

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The Beauty Is Not About The Fame

Here is a 1970 BBC video of Joni Mitchell performing her wonderful song, "For Free", accompanying herself on the piano. Enjoy.

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The Lindsey Lohan Deathwatch

Lindsay Lohan is now 20 years old. Marilyn Monroe died when she was 36. She was, despite her beauty and talent, alone, childless, loveless and miserable. As surely as my fingers are now touching the keyboard, Lohan will die young and alone from the substances she needs to survive the world of fame and celebrity that she, or her parents, chose. To save herself, she must get out of show business and out of the spotlight, now.

If she cannot do this for herself, then it is the obligation of the adults around her to do the moral thing and stop facilitating her disease. Her agent should stop all efforts to find work for her. Producers should not hire her. Any adults or true friends she has must push her to quit the business.

After all, she is, at 20, young enough to abandon Hollywood. She could find the privacy and room for growth she needs at a good university. If she is a good student, in four years she can seek a Masters at the Yale Drama School or Julliard. Hopefully by then she will have matured and found meaning in life that does not demand that she suffer such pain that only booze and heroin will make it tolerable. A long round of therapy would also help. She will only be 25 or so. Yes, she will be beyond the prime bloom of her young womanhood. But the effort to capture that moment is about to cost her her life. That is too high a price for anyone to pay. Imagine the later career she could have as one of America's fine actresses. Think Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster or Kate Winslet as examples to follow.

Perhaps she is overwhelmed by the obligation to financially support all the people in the entourage she has acquired in her short career. If those people are talented they will survive and find another way to earn their ways in the world. If they are not, then they are leeches sucking her blood at the cost of her life.

Freed to be herself among peers who are seeking their own individual paths in life, Lohan will be liked for who she is and she will be free to find out who that person is and develop into the adult she is meant to become. If millions admire her from afar, surely there is some spark that will be obvious up close. She should imagine meeting people who seek nothing from her except to find out who she is. The longer she is out of the spotlight the truer will be the friends she will make. She may even find that being loved for herself, she will no longer need to be loved by the masses. As she already no doubt knows, their affection is transient and it hurts too much to bear.

Update: I need to correct the age I provided for Lindsay. She turned 21 a few days ago. Also, the early reports that the white powder found in her possession was an opiate. It has now been identified as cocaine.


Flickr Foto Of The Day

Originally uploaded by Hugo*
The moving camera snaps, and then moves on. The photographer reports that this was taken at the tourist line entering the Louvre.


Economic Data, Of Elephants and Blind Men

A famous poem by the 19th century Englisman, John Godfrey Saxe, retells the Indian legend about the group of blind men who encounter an elephant. Each touches a different body part and concludes that he knows the true nature of the beast. Each of course, comes to a different conclusion.

I am reminded of this story by today's column by David Brooks and a response by the "progressive" economist, Dean Baker, at the American Prospect.

Brooks proposes that there are signs in the economy that indicate that things are not as bad as what he calls the "neopopulists" among the Democratic presidential candidates would have us believe. Happily for those blocked from seeing Brooks by the TimesSelect wall, Baker quotes Brooks' essential points in his rebuttal.

Baker's contention is that Brooks is essentially wrong on every point, "David Brooks Sets Record For Most Economic Errors In An Oped Column!" (Emphasis entirely Dr. Baker's.)

My humble, non-economist reading of both pieces gives me the impression that both are looking at the same data, but that one is finding the glass half full, while the other finds it half empty. Brooks is not an economist. He uses imprecise terminology, as befits the generalized audience he seeks to reach. He is making political points, not writing a dissertation. For his part, Baker seems to feel obliged to find problems in everything Brooks says, even when he cannot provide any rationale for his assertion that Brooks is wrong.

For example, Baker writes the following:

1) Brooks says "after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years." The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average hourly wage is 1.2 percent higher than its year ago level and still below its December 2002 level. That's almost five years of zero growth. In the late 90s, real wages were growing 1.6 percent annually.

Firstly, if you follow the ostensible link to the BLS statistics, you will learn that the survey in question, "...does not exist". I presume that this is just an error in the posting of the link site, not an attempt by Baker to mislead his readers. In any event, he chooses to not directly contradict Brooks' assertion about the 2006 increase in real wages. Rather he focuses on the lack of growth over the previous five years, which Brooks acknowledged. It would be interesting to know if both men are talking about the same data that one claims shows a 2 percent growth and the other a 1.2 percent growth. In either event, some progress in wages is apparently now being made. Half full or half empty?

Then we have this extraordinary point from Baker:

2) Brooks then cites Brookings economist Ron Haskins' assertion based on data from the Congressional Budget Office that "between 1991 and 2005, 'the bottom fifth increased its earnings by 80 percent'." If we turn to the CBO study (Figure 2), we find that earnings for the bottom fifth of families with children actually increased by 120 percent (welfare reform), but this was between 1991 and 2000. Earnings for this group has fallen by about 20 percent in the last five years.
So Brooks claims an 80% increase in earnings for those at the bottom of the earnings ladder. Baker claims the same data shows 120% increase, which has now gone down by 20%. Doesn't that mean that Baker's view of the data shows better earnings for the poorest workers than even Brooks claimed? Given the new raise in the minimum wage, aren't those earnings likely to increase even more? Apparently Brooks understated his own case.

And so it goes. Baker asserts error in all eight of Brooks' points, but he only attempts to contradict some, and does that badly. Here's one where he doesn't even try:

5) Brooks tells us that the increase in inequality is due to the more frequent use of "performance pay" -- yes, like the $200 million that Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli got paid to leave after mismanaging the company for two and a half years.

Brooks appears to be relying on some data reflecting the broader use of pay rates tied to performance. His sentence, not quoted by Baker reads, "Fifth, companies are getting more efficient at singling out and rewarding productive workers. A study by the economists Thomas Lemieux, Daniel Parent and W. Bentley MacLeod suggests that as much as 24 percent of the increase in male wage inequality is due to performance pay." Baker chooses not to contend the data, he simply grabs one example of egregious overpayment. Yet he claims Brooks is wrong.

The truth, which applies to both men, but, I think, especially to Dr. Baker, is that the nature of economic data is that it is not definitive unto itself. It requires interpretation. Interpretation is an art that is very subject to the biases and perspectives of the interpretor. Harry Truman is alleged to have complained that whenever he would pose a question for an economist, the response would be, "Well, Mr. President, on the one hand ... And then again, on the other hand ..." "What this country needs," Truman said, "is a good one handed economist."

In this current example, I think it is most illuminating to read Baker's penultimate paragraph. Apropos of nothing in particular, he writes:

It will be great when the proponents of the current trade agenda stop arguing against straw men in making their case. No one is advocating autarky. Suppose we had globalization with complete free trade in intellectual products (e.g. no more patent and copyright protection) and huge efforts to eliminate the barriers that sustain the wages for highly paid professionals in the United States (e.g doctors, lawyers, accountants, and economists). This would lead to huge economic gains and greater equality.

Well, I suppose he does have his academic credentials to uphold. Here is the Wikipedia definition of autarky for the rest of us. As for the assertion that income equality is so primal a value that it trumps intellectual property rights and demands the shrinking of pay for professionals, I think that has been tried. It was called the Soviet Union. Perhaps Dr. Baker believes that they only failed because they didn't properly inculcate the masses on their obligation to write novels and invent new processes and machines for the good of the people. Maybe the Taliban had found a more effective means of enforcing behavior that is not naturally human. They were, after all, doing just fine until the crusader armies intruded on their paradise. Perhaps if we started loping off a few overfed heads at Yankee Stadium the creative types would get the message until proper indoctrination could produce a generation of selfless workaholics to generate the economic gains Baker envisions.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Flickr Foto Of The Day

Beside the boat ramp
Originally uploaded by dotlyc
Summer peacefulness.


Rethinking The Middle East Mess

(Photograph of Mark Helprin by Jim Harrison for Harvard Magazine)

When last I wrote about Iraq I hopefully noted reports that the long awaited oil sharing legislation has been agreed to by the parties. Sadly, that was nothing but a chimera generated by smoke and mirrors. It fell apart quickly and will fester over the course of the coming August vacation period of the Iraqi legislature.

In America, we witness the continuing display of politics as show business. The Democrats in Congress, unable to muster enough votes for any meaningful measures to stop Bush, continue to conduct performance art. They are protected by the certain knowledge that their inability to force a withdrawal from Iraq means that they will not have to have any accountability for the aftermath of that withdrawal. Assuming they take the White House in 2008, the new President will have the power to conduct a draw down in any way she or he chooses and will have four years to manage, absorb and spin the outcome.

The President, for his part, seems to be an immovable object. He has persuaded himself that the future of the region, the safety of the United States and his legacy as President will be enhanced by his quixotic persistence in trying to wring some form of quietude in Iraq out of the current chaos. You can count on him to keep stumbling ahead on the ground until the last minute of January 20, 2009. He may, for the sake of his party, try to craft some apparent reduction in the number of troops before November 2008, but that too will only be for show.

In the midst of this hopelessness, Andrew Sullivan has pointed to two recent articles that attempt to rethink the entire equation in the Middle East and to craft a silk purse from the distinctly non-kosher pig's ear we find today.

First there was Sarah Kass in the Wall Street Journal, passed on by Thomas Barnett. This was followed by a piece in a similar vein by Mark Helprin in yesterday's NY Times. (Beware the TimesSelect wall.)

The central idea is that the current disorganization in the region and the apparent rise of Shiite fundamentalism in the spectral persona of Ahmadinejad's Iran, coupled with the breakup of the Palestinian state, may just provide an opportunity to begin to settle the central festering sore that has served to inflame the Middle East for decades. Maybe, just maybe, there is an opportunity to forge a settlement between Israel and the Fatah group in the West Bank that could be approved by the Sunni states in the region, allowing them to refocus on the growing threat from Iran.

Both pieces should be read fully, but I will quote Helprin here, both because of the difficulty of accessing his piece for some and my general affection for him as a writer, more about that later. He suggests that thirty years ago the smart money among the commentators was betting against any lasting peace between Israel and Egypt when Begin and Sadat reached their accord. The fact is that that agreement has not been breached in the intervening period.

Some quarters of government, burnt by the predictable failure of the current administration to transform the political culture of the Middle East into that of the Vermont town meeting, deny this potential, as if by analogy. But the analogy is invalid. The conditions are not the same, the task is entirely different and, unlike the United States, Israel has no timetable (implicit or otherwise) for withdrawal from the region — as its enemies well know.

As America blunts its sword in Iraq, it has relieved Iran of much anxiety in regard to its own vulnerabilities, set up a predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad, and made the Arab world more receptive to Iranian views. This Shiite ascendancy is comprised of a resurgent though weak Iran, Hezbollah’s Shiite rump state in Lebanon chastened by the war it “won” a year ago (with such a victory, defeat is unnecessary), and the alignment with Iran of Syria and Sunni radicals like Hamas.

Contrary to the received wisdom, last summer Hezbollah overplayed its hand. Israel emerged shaken but with few casualties and an economy that actually grew during the hostilities. It took 4,000 of the vaunted Katyusha rockets to kill 39 Israelis, they did little material damage, and not one has been launched in the year since the war. Israel showed that upon provocation it could and would destroy anything in its path, thus creating a Lebanese awakening that has split the country and kept Hezbollah fully occupied. Though Hezbollah is rearming, it remains shy of Israel.

Hamas, too, has overplayed its hand, which has provided the opening from which a Palestinian-Israeli peace may emerge. For the first time since 1948, a fundamental division among the Palestinians presents a condition in which the less absolutist view may find shelter and take hold.

He points out that the wider region may also want to take advantage of this opportunity:

The sudden and intense commonality of interest between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is the equivalent of the Israeli-Egyptian core of 1977. But today, the Arabs, in the second circle, have largely reversed position. Fearful of Iran’s sponsorship of war, chaos and revolution, they will apply their weight against the rejectionists.

Egypt, the Persian Gulf states and Jordan have so much to contend with at home and in the east that they cannot afford an active front in their midst, and are therefore forming ranks against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, bringing most of the rest of the Arab states with them.

This is extraordinary and it is where we are now: on the verge of a rare alignment of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the leading Arab nations and the major powers. Though it is true that one of Moscow’s chief interests is to keep the Middle East roiled so as to preserve the high oil prices that are now Russia’s lifeblood, when the region moved from Soviet to Western arms Moscow was relegated to the periphery, where it remains. Though Europe is militarily paralyzed, it wields great economic incentives; and though the United States has of late been a graceless lummox drunkenly knocking everything awry, its powers remain pre-eminent and its will constructive.

The principals, the important Arab states and the leading powers of the West are arrayed against a radical terrorist front that, unlike the one in Iraq, is geographically fractured, relatively contained, terribly poor and very much outnumbered. Anything for the worse can happen in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and usually does; but now the chief pillars of rejectionist policy lie flat and the spectrum of positions is such that each constructively engaged party can accommodate the others.

In the heat of a failing war, historical processes have unfrozen. If Israel and the Palestinian Authority can pursue a strategy of limited aims, concentrating on bilateral agreements rather than a single work of fallible grandeur, they may accomplish something on the scale of Sadat’s extraordinary démarche of 30 years ago. The odds are perhaps the best they have been since, and responsible governments should recognize them as the spur for appropriate action and risk.

For such a desirable outcome to occur, many parts will have to align neatly and consecutively. Tony Blair and his Group of Four will play a central part. With any luck intelligence will prevail in Jerusalem and Ramallah and the other capitals of the region.

I am less sanguine about the likelihood of intelligence in Washington. Perhaps this new view of the region will take hold, if repeated often enough, like the concept of a three way division of Iraq gained currency last year. If adopted and nurtured by one or more Presidential candidates and other players, perhaps it will achieve critical mass. That assumes, of course, that further analysis does not poke some great holes in its logic.

As for my affection for Mark Helprin, it is primarily for his novels, although his writings on world affairs are also always thought provoking. His three great novels are "A Winter's Tale", which magically envisions a Manhattan divided between the very rich and the very poor in the new ice age that was then (1983) envisioned by environmentalists. This was followed by "A Soldier of the Great War", which remembers a soldiers experiences in the Italian Alps during World War I. Finally, there is "Memoir From Antproof Case" in which a devoted hater of coffee relocates to South America, from where he ponders the events of his life.

Choose any one of them. If you are looking for an intelligent, compelling novel this summer, you cannot go wrong.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Flickr Foto Of The Day

// solai solai solai
Originally uploaded by //bwr
A red balloon and a long black dress are all that is required to convert this landscape into a surrealistic composition.

What Birth Defects Teach Us About Being Human

Nicki Hornbaker, age 19, was born with a genetic defect called Williams Syndrome. About 25 of the 30,000 gene pairs in Nicki's DNA are not connected. A mere 5 or 6 of those missing connections have led to the prototypical Williams features exhibited by Nicki. Although Williams people have trouble interpreting space and numbers and therefore have difficulty being self sufficient, their primary distinguishing feature is a talky openness and social affability.

They have, "an exuberant gregariousness and near-normal language skills. Williams people talk a lot, and they talk with pretty much anyone. They appear to truly lack social fear. Indeed, functional brain scans have shown that the brain’s main fear processor, the amygdala, which in most of us shows heightened activity when we see angry or worried faces, shows no reaction when a person with Williams views such faces. It’s as if they see all faces as friendly."

In a fascinating article in the Sunday NY Times Magazine, David Dobbs uses the characteristics of Williams to draw a lesson about our social nature as human beings. There is also an interesting video of an interview with Nicki that demonstrates her affability and her limitations.

Occasionally it is important to draw back from the minutiae of our daily lives and our obsessions with politics and other issues and contemplate who we are as creatures of the evolutionary chain. (If you are looking for a discussion of the alleged debate about so-called creationism vs. Darwinism you will have to look elsewhere for now. At this blog there is no such debate. Darwin won. The really interesting question for me is how this process works at the genetic level and how its expressions play out in our lives.)

If people with Williams have a serious interruption in their ability to perceive danger from other people due entirely to a genetic defect, then the need for people to both count on and fear other people, a delicate balance, must be central to humanness. It has apparently been hard wired into our brains. As Julie R. Korenberg of UCLA puts it:

“We’ve long figured that major behavioral traits rose in indirect fashion from a wide array of genes,” Korenberg says. “But here we have this really tiny genetic deletion — of the 20-some-odd genes missing, probably just 3 to 6 create the cognitive and social effects — that reliably creates a distinctive behavioral profile. Williams isn’t just a fascinating mix of traits. It is the most compelling model available for studying the genetic bases of human behavior.”
Another scientist notes:

“It’s not just ‘genes make brain make behavior.’ You have environment and experience too.” By environment, Reiss means less the atmosphere of a home or a school than the endless string of challenges and opportunities that life presents any person starting at birth. In Williams, he says, these are faced by someone who struggles to understand space and abstraction but readily finds reward listening to speech and looking at faces. As the infant and toddler seeks and prolongs the more rewarding experiences, already-strong neural circuits get stronger while those in weaker areas may atrophy. Patterns of learning and behavior follow accordingly.
Here is the key transition in this article from the discussion of a particular syndrome to the larger issues of human nature:

As an experiment of nature, Williams syndrome makes clear that while we are innately driven to connect with others, this affiliative drive alone will not win this connection. People with Williams rarely win full acceptance into groups other than their own. To bond with others we must show not just charm but sophisticated cognitive skills. But why? For vital relationships like those with spouses or business partners, the answer seems obvious: people want to know you can contribute. But why should casual friendships and group membership depend on smarts?

One possible answer a comes from the rich literature of nonhuman primate studies. For 40 years or so, primatologists like Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have been studying social behavior in chimps, gorillas, macaques, bonobos and baboons. Over the past decade that work has led to a unifying theory that explains not only a huge range of behavior but also why our brains are so big and what their most essential work is. The theory, called the Machiavellian-intelligence or social-brain theory, holds that we rise from a lineage in which both individual and group success hinge on balancing the need to work with others with the need to hold our own — or better — amid the nested groups and subgroups we are part of.

Competition for food, i.e. for survival, led to the necessity for larger and larger groups. Families merged into tribes.

But the bigger groups imposed a new brain load: the members had to be smart enough to balance their individual needs with those of the pack. This meant cooperating and exercising some individual restraint. It also required understanding the behavior of other group members striving not only for safety and food but also access to mates. And it called for comprehending and managing one’s place in an ever-shifting array of alliances that members formed in order not to be isolated within the bigger group.
This greater need for brain power has led to the evolution of greater brain capacity:

This isn’t idle speculation; Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.
Dunbar further states:

"... no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

We all experience the truth of this human trait in our daily lives. At work, in families and in our social networks we are constantly trading information to garner the lay of the land.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.
As Dobbs concludes:

To inquire into human behavior’s genetic underpinnings is to ask what most essentially defines us. One of the most vexing questions raised by both Williams research and the social-brain thesis is whether our social behavior is ultimately driven more by the urge to connect or the urge to manipulate the connection.

The traditional inclination, of course, is to distinguish essential human behavior by our “higher” skills and cognitive powers. We dominate the planet because we can think abstractly, accumulate and relay knowledge and manipulate the environment and one another. By this light our social behavior rises more from big brains than from big hearts.

The disassociation of so many elements in Williams — the cognitive from the connective, social fear from nonsocial fear, the tension between the drive to affiliate and the drive to manipulate — highlights how vital these elements are and, in most of us, how delicately, critically entwined. Yet these splits in Williams also clarify which, of caring and comprehension, offers the more vital contribution. For if Williams confers disadvantage by granting more care than comprehension, reversing this imbalance creates a far more problematic phenotype.

As Robert Sapolsky of the Stanford School of Medicine puts it: “Williams have great interest but little competence. But what about a person who has competence but no warmth, desire or empathy? That’s a sociopath. Sociopaths have great theory of mind. But they couldn’t care less.”

Fascinating stuff.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Equal Pay For Unequal Work?

In winning yesterday's Women's Final at Wimbeldon, Venus Williams earned the same pay check as today's male winner will earn. After the match Venus, who easily outmastered her younger opponent in strait sets, noted the happy arrival of gender equality at the All England Club.

But how can it be true equality when at Wimbeldon and in all of tennis, women play only three sets per match at most while men play up to five sets per match? The notion of the arrival of equality in tennis seems to be being taken for granted. Here, for example is the Times in London's take on yesterday's victory by Ms. Williams:

However, this was supposedly not just the showpiece match of female tennis, a sport that once again has received a huge cash boost in this fortnight with the news that the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships will have prize money commensurate to the men’s Masters Cup. It was also an opportunity to celebrate the wisdom of the decision by the All England Club to finally bow to demands for financial parity.
I enjoy tennis. For many years in the 90's I regularly attended the US Open in New York. It is certainly crystal clear in person and even via the TV that men are bigger, stronger, faster and harder hitting than women. That is simply the way the physical cards have been dealt.

No credible person is even suggesting that our new found pay equality should be the entry point into a scheme by which men and women would compete against one another in the same set of pairings. It is obvious to most that in such an arrangement, a woman would rarely, if ever, survive to the championship. Let us remember that even the greatest advocate for prize equality in tennis, Billie Jean King, could only defeat the 55 year old Bobby Riggs, who was 25 years her senior, in a large scale joke that masqueraded as a tennis match.

Why can women only play three sets per match? Are they inherently weaker? Are they incapable of standing the physical strain? Will they suffer the vapors? The question must be asked. For the consumer of the sport, the paying fans who fill the stands around the world, the same price is paid for entry to a men's or women's match. And that price is measured in the hundreds of dollars or more for a grand slam match. Yet the consumer will surely receive less tennis and arguably a less powerful though possibly subtler game for their money.

I would argue that there is no physical reason for women being restricted to three sets. It is a tradition that established itself in the Victorian age and was codified at a time when women generally were seen as not the equals of men in almost any respect. Haven't we reached the point were the last residue of that ancient view should be put to the sleep it deserves?

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

It's Not Enough To Do Good, You Must Be Seen As A Do-gooder

Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

Well, it has now been proven by research, as reported in the NY Times, that the main reason people buy the rather ugly and somewhat impractical Toyota Prius when they want a hybrid car is that owning it, "Makes a statement about me."

There surely are other valid choices when seeking a hybrid. Toyota itself sells an hybrid version of its popular Camry. Ford has the Escape SUV hybrid and Saturn has the VUE SUV hybrid. But only the Prius can be spotted from a block away as a hybrid. Fully 57% of buyers surveyed this year site as their reason for buying a Prius that everyone else will see them and know that they are good people who want to do something positive for the environment. As the Times says, it has become the automotive equivalent of the brightly colored plastic bracelets that announce one's contribution to a raft of good causes.

My question is, what is missing in these people that they require outside validation of their goodness? Shouldn't it be enough for them to know that they are good? It seems to be necessary that they proclaim themselves holier than the rest of us in our gas guzzlers.

Added: Of course, if you decide to boogey down highway at 100 mph while holding a bag of weed and some of all the major psychotropic and pain meds known to man, you may just get noticed too much.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Before We Get All Mushy And Patriotic About Elections...

Here is Patric McGoohan as The Prisoner, his marvelous 60's TV series. In this segment he is convinced to run for leader of the Village.

I was so fond of the series that while in Wales in 1972 my wife and I spent an afternoon roaming about and photographing the hotel, called The Portmerion, that served as the set for exterior shots on the show.

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

St Petersburg roofs
Originally uploaded by Ruby Blue
I found nothing particularly appropriate for July 4th, but this shot of roofs inside an apartment block in St. Petersburg was striking. As the photog's note says, it was well worth the climb.

Small Ray Of Hope In Iraq

The Iraqi Cabinet yesterday finalized and sent to the Parliament the long debated law that defines how Iraq's oil resources will be exploited and shared. The proposed law codifies the shared ownership of the oil by all the people of Iraq. It also establishes a board that will oversee all contracts the production of oil and oversee oil and gas policy for the nation. To the extent that the final law satisfies the Sunni groups, whose geographic territories do not include significant petroleum resources, they may be more amenable to engaging in the political process.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Olberman Changes His Tune About Perjury and Obstruction of Justice

Keith Olberman was in high dungeon last night about the Libby commutation. He even suggested that a good model for us to follow in the wake of this final indignity by Bush would be the dictator Oliver Cromwell's dismissal of the Rump Parliament. Apparently he can not stand Bush to the degree that he no longer can tolerate our silly democratic processes and he wants to disenfranchise the rubes who reelected Bush and forced Olberman to tolerate another year and a half of the man.

Well, the last time Olberman was covering acts of perjury and obstruction of justice the alleged perpetrator was William Jefferson Clinton. Was Keith equally outraged at such dishonesty in the White House? No he was not.

Here are some quotes from NewsBusters:

Regarding Olbermann's denial that he was ever accused of "being a liberal" during the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal, while he was hosting MSNBC's Big Show, the MRC at that time documented several instances of hostility to Kenneth Starr, impeachment, Newt Gingrich and Republicans in general. On August 18, 1998, in the aftermath of President Clinton's speech admitting to his affair with Lewinsky, Olbermann thought it insightful to remark that Starr reminded him facially of Heinrich Himmler, and suggested some might compare Starr to a "persecutor opposed to a prosecutor."

Olbermann, from August 18, 1998: "Can Ken Starr ignore the apparent breadth of the sympathetic response to the President’s speech? Facially, it finally dawned on me that the person Ken Starr has reminded me of facially all this time was Heinrich Himmler, including the glasses. If he now pursues the President of the United States, who, however flawed his apology was, came out and invoked God, family, his daughter, a political conspiracy and everything but the kitchen sink, would not there be some sort of comparison to a persecutor as opposed to a prosecutor for Mr. Starr?"

Or this:

"It worked in Stalingrad. To some degree, it worked in the foreign compound during the Boxer Rebellion in Peking in 1900. It certainly seems to have worked for Bill Clinton. When there’s no capability of offense, no escape, and especially if you’re lucky enough to have an overconfident opponent -- just batten down the hatches and wait for the idiots to defeat themselves. Impeachment, once spoken gravely by presidential defenders and opponents alike, now engenders giggles and arguments about it carry all the weight of arguments about who is the rightful Czar of all the Russias."
-- MSNBC Big Show host Keith Olbermann, November 23, 1998
Apparently Olberman views consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds, at least when there are Republicans to be assaulted .


Speaking of Joe Wilson...

I forgot to highlight emergence of a now bearded Joe Wilson to grouchily decry the Bush pardon on this morning's Today show and, I'm sure, on the cable new nets. David Brooks put it best in his piece this morning:

The drama opened, as these dark comedies are wont to do, with a strutting little peacock who went by the unimaginative name of Joe Wilson.

Mr. Wilson claimed that his wife had nothing to do with his trip to investigate Iraqi purchases in Niger, though that seems not to have been the case. He claimed his trip proved Iraq had made no such attempts, though his own report said nothing of the kind.

In short order, Wilson established himself as the charming P.T. Barnum of the National Security set, an inveterate huckster who could be counted on to wrap every actual fact in six layers of embellishment. His small part in the larger fiasco of the Iraq war would not have registered a micron of attention had the villain of the epic — the vice president — not exercised his unfailing talent for vindictive self-destruction.


Flickr Foto Of The Day

Originally uploaded by bRk yLmz
The language of the photographer is a mystery to me. Can anyone identify its apparent Eastern European source? Leaving that aside, the moment of this capture of intergenerational contact is classic.

Perjury and Obstruction of Justice is Perjury and Obstruction of Justice, Period.

The three gentlemen pictured above, H. R. Haldeman, Bill Clinton and Scooter Libby were all charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Haldeman and Libby were convicted and sentenced. Clinton, being President of the United States, could not be proscecuted and submitted to the tender mercies of a Federal jury. He was Impeached by the House. The Senate voted 55 - 45 to not convict him of perjury and 50 - 50 on the obstruction charge, which therefore failed to achieve the necessary majority.

Perjury and obstruction of justice are either crimes or they are not. The guilt or innocence of the person cannot be based on the reality or severity of the underlying crime. If that were the standard, then some lying and obstruction would be OK, even though the very acts of lying and obstructing might prevent prosecutors from being able to determining whether and which underlying crimes in fact occurred.

For my part, in those long ago days, B.B. (Before Blogging), I supported the conviction and jailing of the likes of Haldeman, Erlichman and the others of the Watergate era. I also supported the Impeachment of Clinton for his crimes. Yes, I know, he was not technically convicted by the Senate. But surely one can presume that if the same charges were presented to an Grand Jury and subsequently tried, a conviction would have been forthcoming. After all, the man went on TV speaking to the American people and barefacedly lied in the "I never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky" speech. His conviction at a real trial would have been a slam dunk, to quote another current master of the half-truth.

So please spare me, yea purveyors of leftist and rightist screeds. You cannot have it both ways. As David Brooks so aptly put it today:

Republicans who’d worked themselves up into a spittle-spewing rage because Bill Clinton lied under oath were appalled that anybody would bother with poor Libby over lying under oath. Democrats who were outraged that Bill Clinton was hounded for something as trivial as perjury were furious that Scooter Libby might not be ruined for a crime as heinous as perjury. It was an orgy of shamelessness. The God of Self-Respect took sabbatical.
One can understand the calculus of the politicians. They are focused on the battle. Bush is trying to hold on to what is left of his Republican support in Congress. He needed to mollify them if he was to avoid a total descent into lame duckery. The Democrats needed, for the reverse of the same reason, that Bush deny any leniency. Both parties were acting in the time honored tradition of defending one's own kind at any cost and attacking the other side at any opportunity.

But pundits, those of the MSM and Blogosphere, ought to be held to a higher standard. Truth and logic should be stuff of their efforts. Those who quiver and prevaricate along purely partisan lines do not deserve our attention. They fully deserve our approbation.

As to Libby's sentence, supposedly the excess of which let Bush to commute it, the only test is that it should be just, as compared to the sentences routinely handed out to Federal defendants across the country. As to that, Edward Lazarus, at the FindLaw site has a well cited piece that discussed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Perjury and Obstruction of Justice. His conclusion:

Is it really fair, after all, to up Libby's punishment for obstructing an investigation in which there was no underlying crime charged (or perhaps even committed)? (Readers may object that a crime must have been committed, since no one can dispute that Valerie Plame's identity was, in fact, revealed. However, it is possible, for example, that the person who released the information lacked the state of mind necessary for criminal punishment.)

In his sentencing memorandum, Special Counsel Fitzgerald asserted that under the Guidelines, it does not matter whether the investigation ripened into an actual criminal charge against the defendant or anyone else. On this point, it looks like Fitzgerald has a pretty good legal argument, based on the text of the Guidelines and the accompanying materials.

And it's not hard to see why. The mere fact that the underlying investigation did not result in criminal charges can't be the difference-maker. If it were, then a really successful cover-up would result in more lenient sentencing for a perjury/obstruction defendant, than would a less successful one - that is, one which led to criminal charges. That makes no sense, as it rewards talented and effective deception, the most dangerous kind.

Against this backdrop, I find it hard to fault Fitzgerald for sticking with the tough-on-crime approach that has earned him so many admirers. He's driven by a genuine outrage at Libby's subversion of a legitimate and serious investigation into an abuse of power and, in prosecuting that subversion, he has gone straight by the book.

Lazarus also would not have found grounds for objection to a more lenient original sentence. He concludes:

I do not pretend to know what the precise right answer is in Libby's case, regarding the justice of his sentence. I don't think anyone not fully immersed in the investigation and evidence could know. The most I can say is that the Libby case is a good case study for why the Guidelines should only be advisory, not mandatory. Some cases just don't lend themselves easily to algorithmic answers; they call for the exercise of human beings' reasoned discretion.
The Probation Office, which is required to review each case and apply the sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of 15 - 21 months. Arguably Bush could have commuted Libby's sentence to that level, but he chose to eliminate any jail time at all. Therein lies the fault, dear Brutus, in ourselves this time.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Medical Malpractice Insurance Rates To Rise 14%

The Insurance Department of New York' s Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer has approved a 14% increase in the annual insurance rates for physicians. I repeat, a 14% increase.

According to the Times:

Dr. Robert Goldberg, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, said in a statement that the increase would “severely worsen the health care access crisis that has already resulted in shortages in several specialties all across New York State.”

The society said the increase would mean that a neurosurgeon in Long Island would now have to pay $309,311 for one year’s coverage, while an ob-gyn specialist in Brooklyn or Queens would have to pay $173,061.

Donna M. Williams, executive director of the New York district of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said “the constant increase in premiums is forcing obstetricians across the state to give up the practice of obstetrics and simply do the practice of gynecology only.”

According to the State Insurance Superintendent, “We have inherited the worst of both worlds — physicians who cannot afford to practice medicine and insurers whose financial condition is rapidly eroding. The cause is high medical liability costs, and this administration is going to address it.”

Jesus, I hope so. How can doctors possibly earn a decent income if such an enormous portion of their funds must go to the insurance companies? Why continue? And the insurance companies claim to be going broke even with these high premiums.

The Spitzer administration has formed a task force to attempt to solve the problem. Do you think it might be possible that they will take a look at the vultures called personal injury lawyers who are picking at this corpse clean? How about the legal system that allows anyone to file a suit for any reason and expect the likelihood of a juicy settlement? Not likely.

Oh, excuse me, I have just been informed by a knowledgeable advocate for the personal injury bar that the current crisis is totally caused by an shocking increase in the incompetence of doctors and the fortuitous quest of noble attorneys who seek only to provide minimal recompense to hideously injured patients and prevent, through financial punishment, the future crimes of doctors who chronically fail to follow generally accepted medical practice.

Never mind.

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

Breaking my silence
Originally uploaded by butterfly31
I'm not sure of the bird's type, but it appears to be one that feeds in shallow water, given its long legs. The photograper says, "I see your true colour!"


For The Left, Iran Can Do No Wrong

In today's NY Times, Michael Gordon reports that, "Iranian operatives helped plan a January raid in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed, an American military spokesman in Iraq said today."

If the name Michael Gordon doesn't ring a bell, that must be because you have not been perseverating about the "traitorous" reporting by Gordon and the hated Judith Miller in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The left side of the blogosphere has declared the pair persona non grata for reporting the widespread belief of the western intelligence services that Hussein possessed WMD.

For that sin, nothing the pair do in their lives will ever again be believed by the "progressives". Anything less than their banishment into careers as Starbuck's baristas will do.

So today, in reaction to the Gordon piece we see the spectacle of an all out assault on Gordon and an absolute denial, purely on an ad hominem basis, of the possibility that Iran has done anything against the interests of the United States in Iraq or anywhere else. Iran is just peachy keen according to their lights.

Here is Bernhard of Moon of Alabama:

You can bet with a very good chance that his statement, which Michael Gordon dutiful stenographs, has its origins in the White House. This bomb-Iran propaganda, the accusation of direct, official Iranian military intervention in Iraq, is originating from within the center of the Bush administration. It is fed through a "military spokesman" who just left the White House to Michael Gorden who's editors dependably publish it unfiltered in the New York Times.

Here is the bravely anonymous "Mcjoan" of Daily Kos:

Of course the objective of the U.S. military has been to pin the blame on the Iranian government. Not only does it further their case for war against Iran but it provides a momentary distraction from just how catastrophic this whole venture has been. And, yet again, Michael Gordon is the willing media stooge for their efforts. The NYT really should do something about him.
And we have the leader of the pack, Glenn Greenwald, quoted by all the others, saying:

Every paragraph in this article -- literally -- does one of two things: (1) uncritically recites the U.S. military's accusations against the Iranian government, and/or (2) offers assertions from Gordon himself designed to bolster those accusations (e.g., "There is also extensive intelligence that Iran has supplied Shiite militants with the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq" and "In Washington, Bush Administration officials have generally held open the possibility that the Quds Force activities might have been carried out without the knowledge of Iran's senior leaders").
None of these people have or present one shred of evidence that the sainted Iranian government and its Quds troops are as pure as the driven snow. They don't need to to satisfy themselves and their sycophants. They operate solely on the basis that, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Anything, anything at all, said by anyone they can tie to the Bush Administration in any way is de facto wrong. No ifs, ands or buts.

If you don't believe me, wait until a Democratic President in the next Administration, as is the current most likely scenario, charges the Iranians with similar or new acts of belligerence. The folks cited above will then promptly acknowledge the likelihood of truth in those accusations. They will have not one shred of independent evidence of the facts, as they do not now. They will simply believe the messenger. Nor will they, I predict, even note the sudden change in their perspective. Hell, by then some of them will have received their hoped for appointment in the new White House.

For my part, I too have no independent evidence about the involvement of Iran, but I am willing to accept a wide array of evidence from all sources before I discount any for cause. I also have no sense of an orchestrated drum beat against Iraq as all of our friends on the left do. It makes a wonderful issue for them. They can scream ad infinitum about it without having to prove anything and then when Bush leaves office without attacking Iraq, they can claim it was their vigilance at the barricades that dissuaded him from acting. It's a win/win.

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