Saturday, December 31, 2011

Superman Fighting the KKK

As a life-long Marvel Comics fan, I have always turned my nose up to DC Comics.  DC comics always seemed too simplistic. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman may have seemed really creative when they were created in the 1940's but for my post-hippy angst, Marvel was much more appealing.  Stan Lee created characters like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-men in the 1960's.  They are much more complex.  Their stories have an edge to them and have a lot more social commentary in them with themes of racism, otherness and individuality.

I just finished a  chapter in Freakonomics (by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) that gave me new appreciation for Superman, not the comic but the radio show.  In the 1940's political activist Stetson Kennedy went undercover with the Ku Klux Klan with the intention of publishing a book about their inner workings.  He learned a lot of their secrets like their recruiting techniques, passwords, handshakes and terminology.  For example, when a Klansman went on the road, they could find other Klansmen by asking around for "Mr Ayak" which stood for "Are you a Klansman?".   If a Klansman heard someone asking for Mr. Ayak at a bar, a church etc., they could identify themselves by replying "Yes, and I also know a Mr. Akai" which stood for "A Klansman Am I."

The Klan was growing strong.  Kennedy thought that just another journalistic book would not affect the spread of bigotry enough, he had a better idea.  He contacted the producers of the very popular Superman radio show.  Superman was running out of villains.  Why not take on the Klan?  "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" was born in 1946.  For 16 episodes Superman battled the Klan.  In these episodes the Ayak/Akai passwords were revealed and the Klan mystique was demystified.  If the following years the Klan attendance dropped and recruitment plummeted.  What was once a secret code was now common and afloat in the pop culture airways.

Levitt and Dubner call Kennedy, the "biggest blow" to the KKK in their history.  They may have over stated this, but the idea that tolerance is good business may have started here.  Nonetheless my appreciation for Superman, real world or otherwise has greatly increased.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Corn People and Corn Cattle

It is that time of year again.  It is corn time.  Not the corn growing season, of course, certainly not here in Vermont.  It is corn season because the Iowa Caucus is approaching and politicians just love corn this time a year.  To survive in Iowa, you have to express your undying love for corn, corn subsidies and ethanol.  Ethanol is a dead-end environmentally, but that doesn't matter to our so-called liberal president, he supports it.  At this point, it seems that only Fox News thinks Obama is a liberal.

In 2008, John McCain was the only major candidate to be honest and come out against corn.  Of course, in the Iowa Caucus that year he came in a distant third to Huckabee and Romney, confessed corn lovers.   More recently, in this year's Republican Primary race, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty promoted "phasing out" corn subsidies.  What happen to him?  He dropped out of the race after a very poor showing in the Iowa Straw Poll.  Why is the Straw Poll so important?  With such a poor showing, donations to his campaign would dry up.  

Newt is crazy about corn subsidies.  He finds it to be a national security issues.  He wants us to wean off oil and pump ethanol in our cars or heat our homes with it but that would require much more land to be farmed than is possible.  This is just another nutty, Newty idea that has little basis in reality.

The US is, by far, the largest producer of corn on the planet, producing almost half of the supply.  The US has 400,000 farms growing 10 billion bushels, using 72.7 million acres for cash receipts of $15.1 billion.  Corn and soy beans are our two biggest crops. Where does all this corn go?  Very little of it is for direct consumption of humans.  32% are exported overseas, 18% of it goes to sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and then rest goes toward feed stock for cattle.  Most of our overseas corn goes to feeding cattle as well. Corn fed cattle grow faster thus costing less money.   

The digestive systems of cattle aren't exactly equipped for all this grain.  They usually feed on grass, but most cattle in the US have a diet of at least 90% corn feed.  This causes ulcers in the animals among other things.  To combat the illnesses they are given antibiotics.  70% of the antibiotics used in the US are used by the meat industry.   You feeling a hankering for a burger about now?  No, worries, even farmed salmon are fed corn now.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 27th Amendment

The US Constitution states that two-thirds of the states need to ratify an Amendment to become the law of the land, but there is no expiration date to this ratification (see Coleman vs. Miller).  The 27th Amendment (the Madison Amendment) is the latest Amendment to our Constitution which became law in 1992, but it was originally introduced to Congress by James Madison 203 years before.  Madison wasn't president yet; he was a Congressman at the time.

The 27th Amendment is not very interesting or controversial.  It basically states that Congressional pay raises can only be granted directly after a House of Representatives election. So after a increase is voted in, an election must take place before it can go into effect. Six states originally ratified it:  Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, Delaware and the Carolina's.  At the time, 10 states were needed to make it a law.  Ohio ratified it in 1873 and Wyoming in 1978.  It wasn't until 1982 that it started getting wider recognition by the rest of the states.   An under-graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, Gregory Watson, started a letter writing campaign to get the rest of the states to ratify it.    It took ten years.  On May 7th, 1992, Michigan and New Jersey became the 39th and 40th states to ratify the Amendment.   There are still five states that did not ratify it:  Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ramona and the Dawes Act

When you think of novels that had an affect on American political movements of the19th Century, the first two books that come to mind are Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  These two books affects on the abolitionists movements are undeniable.  A book that is much lesser known today had an equally large affect on a different political movement, on Indian affairs, Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson.

Ramona was published in 1884 in serialized form in the Christian Union magazine.  It chronicles the life of a fictionalized Scottish-Native American orphan woman and her husband, Allesandra in what is now Southern California in the days following the Mexican-American War.  It is almost an unknown novel today, but it was one of the most popular books of the 19th century.  The racial discrimination and hardships that Ramona and Allesandro face created much empathy in its readers and may have been the first time white readers saw natives portrayed as being human ... as exhibiting love, ambition and charity. One of the recurring themes of the book is how easily white Americans can legally take land from the natives.  You could say that the affect that the book had on politics was so strong that you could possibly draw a direct line from the novel's publication to the passing of the Dawes Act.

The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 with good intentions to help protect Native American land rights.  The act took tribally owned land and split it up to be owned by individual natives.  Another selling point of the bill was that it promoted assimilation by forcing them into tradition European style living situations.  The end result was disruption of the traditional communal life of the tribes and provided an easier way of taking Indian land for it was now split up and speculators could now deal with (aka philander or steal from) individuals rather than large tribes and tracts of land.  In the 47 years of the Dawes Act about two-thirds of their land base were lost to the white man.  Helen Hunt Jackson was opposed to it from the beginning.  She wrote some famous letters to Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressing the problems with the act.

Among other things, Ramona had a positive affect on commerce in the region. The place names in the book were fictitious and Jackson died before she could set everyone straight as to where they actually represented.  So many places in Southern California claimed to be the "home of Ramona" to attract wealthy tourists.  The railroad was connecting California to the rest of the world so these were hot destinations.  The place of her wedding and her grave were also other popular attractions. Today there is a town named Ramona and the Ramona Pageant has been held in Helmut, California annually since 1923.   The San Bernardino Freeway was once named the Ramona Freeway.

Like so many Hollywood adaptations, the most famous adaption by D. W. Griffith in 1910 was an extremely  watered down version of the novel.  This silent film, starring the wonderful Mary Pickford, concentrated strictly on the romance between Ramona and Allesandro so the social commentary was lost.  I can't help but think of Hollywood's butchering of some of my favorite books like Will Smith's I, Robot or Disney's take on Huckleberry Finn.  It seems that somethings just don't change.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Halifax Explosion

As an American and a Vermonter that lives less than an hour's drive from the Canadian border, I am a little embarrassed as to how little I know of Canadian history.  What I learned today was about the Halifax Explosion.  On December 7th, American commemorate Pearl Habor Day, but on December 6th, Canadians do so for the Halifax Explosion.

On December 6th, 1917, amidst World War I, two ships collided in Halifax harbor causing the largest unintentional explosion in the history of the world.  2,000 people died and 12,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed when 500 acres of the city were obliterated.   The explosion caused a tsunami, the gust of wind from the blast knocked over trees and shot a fireball into the air.  The very next day, during rescue operations, 16 inches of snow fell on the town.

The Norwegian ship the SS Imo, carrying relief supplies for war victims, collided with the French supply ship the SS Mont-Blanc.  The French ship was carrying munitions including TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton.   The harbor was particularly crowded during the war due to a U-boat net that surrounded the harbor and increased traffic due to the war.

I know I am ignorant of Canadian history and my ears perk up whenever I hear something interesting about our neighbors to the north.  Regardless of how ignorant I am not, watching this video makes me feel knowledgeable:

Asking Americans about Canada      

Monday, December 19, 2011

Who was Georges Méliès?

If I had to list my favorite film directors, I would have to put Scorsese in my top five.  His latest film, Hugo, is not your typical Scorsese film in that it is not about gritty characters like gangsters, boxers or cab driving veterans.  It is a children's film based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Can he pull off a children's film?  Some say no, that the film is too slow and children get bored half way through.  Regardless, I look forward to seeing it.

One of the main characters in the film is Méliès (portrayed by Ben Kingsley). This is a fictitious portrayal of a real person.  Georges Méliès was a French illusionist who by the 1896 became interested in the new art form of film. He started making films using some of his illusionist techniques. He is attributed with creating some of the first science fiction films ever and being the first special effects specialist. He created over 500 films from 1896 to 1913 ranging from 1 to 45 minutes long.  Without the use of a Mac that is a lot of work.  He was one of the first film editors and dabbled with out-of-the-box techniques like over-exposing film. Most of the films didn't have any plot whatsoever ... they just showed off his illusions ... a person disappearing, a person growing very large, a man turning a skeleton, a trip to the moon, a trip to the sun.

I had never heard of him before Hugo was released but I am familiar with this film, Viaje a la Luna (in english Trip to the Moon).  You might be as well.  It is about a bunch of astronomers who build a rocket to the moon (loosely based on works of Verne and HG Wells). Perhaps Scorsese was drawn to this book because of the Méliès character. Think of Hugo as an homage ... for what else is special effects other than illusion?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

He's Dead, Jim

I know a woman who recently lost her partner.  His name was Jim. In the weeks to follow her loss, she noticed a message on her computer, "He's Dead, Jim," when she shut down her computer.  Her first inclination was "spooky," the second inclination was that someone was playing a very cruel joke.  Because she couldn't consistently reproduce it, I asked her to take a picture of it so that I could troubleshoot it.  It was flashing on her screen so even getting a picture wasn't easy.  This isn't exactly what it looked like, but close enough:

After googling the message I figured out that this happens when you are using Google Chrome as your browser.  If you shut down your computer while Chrome it is still open, this message comes up.  I couldn't reproduce it on my PC but it does happen consistently on hers now that we know what is causing it.

Apparently, an engineer at Google thought that it would be funny to use Dr. McCoy's words (when talking to Jim Kirk) in this message without considering how many people out there know someone named Jim and who will some day die.  Stumbling on this at the wrong time, could be a very shocking experience.  

I found this on Youtube.  It is a compilation of all Dr. McCoy's death pronouncements from the original Star Trek: He's Dead, Jim.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Titanic Sky

James Cameron's Oscar winning film, Titanic, is famous for being accurate.  Everything from the design of the ship, the chandeliers, gown design and plate settings are historically accurate.  The film is supposed to be scientifically accurate as well.  For example, how the ship sank was a painstaking detail that Cameron wrought over ... the angle of the ship as it sank, the speed of the sinking and the affects of the impact.   When you go around claiming how accurate your film is, there are going to be people looking for things that are wrong.  One of those people is Neil deGrasse Tyson (my favorite astrophysicist), the director of the Hayden Planetarium.

The HMS Titanic sank in the Northern Atlantic on the 14th of April, 1912. There is only one set of stars that should have been visible on that night.   Yet this film, that totes scientific and historical accuracy, had the wrong set of stars in the sky.  Not only were they the wrong stars, but that star pattern that hangs over Kate Winslet shoulder at the end of the film, just doesn't exist.  Only half the pattern exists, the rest of the sky is a mirror image of the first half of the sky.  He got lazy here perhaps hoping that no one would notice or care.  

It is nice to have some pull.  In 2012 a revised 3D version Titanic  will be released for the film's 15th anniversary.  The correct sky is in the new release of the film.  James Cameron has bumped into Tyson a number of times.  I think Cameron might just be sick of Tyson bringing it up.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Romney in '68

In 1966 Gallup polls there was a Romney at the top of the pack.  Not Mitt obviously, but his father George.  He was ahead of the ex-vice president Richard Nixon by almost 10 points and was considered a shoo in for the Republican nomination for presidency.  With Johnson not running for reelection and the Kennedy's out of the picture, the Republican nominee would sail to the presidency.  So why didn't he defeat Nixon for the nomination?  It appears that Mitt and George have something in common .. their inability to adhere to a political position.

George Romney was the Governor of Michigan and a successful businessman.  He was popular and handsome but had a tendency to go off on tangents.  Also, his Mormon religious affiliation was an issue with a largely Protestant populace.  The more Americans got to know Romney, the more Nixon gained in the polls.  Nixon was not popular but he was a known entity.  It wasn't until an old interview with Romney was released that he plummeted.  He was asked by a Michigan newspaper reporter about why his opinion on the Vietnam War had change.  He was pro war until he flipped to anti-war.  He explained his initial support of the war as being "brain washed" by the American military.  He was a staunch anti-war candidate from there on end.  It wasn't the anti-war stance that sank him, but the use of the term "brain washed."  Both Nixon and the Democrats road this to Romney's easy defeat in the primaries.  You could say it went viral in an era prior to the Internet.

Romney came in fifth in the primaries and polled 40% below Nixon by November.  At the convention, he refused to give his delegates over to Nixon.  This is something that Nixon never forgot.  If not for this move, Romney may have been VP over Agnew and Ford and may have eventually been president.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Film Rating System

I don't pay a lot of attention to the ratings on films.  Whether a film is rated G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 has little affect on me.  I am in my 40's and I don't have any children.  But sometimes I have to scratch my head as to why a film is rated what it is.  If you are at all curious about this, I suggest you check out the film This Film Is Not Yet Rated which you can stream via Netflix or IFC's web site.

This film is about the MPAA (Movie Picture Association of America) and spends a lot of time on the decision process involved in rating a film NC-17 which is the rating that they give films that children are not allowed to see in the theater. They are not quite as explicit to warrant an X rating (aka pornography) and generally have more of a plot than an X rated film.  NC-17 means no children under 17 admitted under any circumstances. There are not a lot of hard and fast rules about ratings.  They are decided by a group of anonymous parents who watch the film and decide who should be able to watch it.  The difference between an NC-17 rating and an R rating can mean millions of dollars because the NC-17 rating can limit the distribution of the film.  Sometimes the offending scene is a few second long while other times, the entire film would need to be re-edited.

I find some of the decisions made by the MPAA to be very odd.  They seem very concerned about sexual content and have little concern over violence.  Boys Don't Cry, Blue Valentine and The Cooler, good films with relevant social commentary, were initially given an NC-17 rating due to some fairly innocuous sexually content. The Cooler received the rating due to the exposure of Maria Bello's pubic hair.   Yet, the film Scary Movie is rated R and depicts a cheerleader being decapitated and her head thrown in a lost-and-found bin.   If I were a parent, I'd be more concerned about gratuitous violence against woman (or violence in general) than a pubic hair.

This wouldn't be a problem with me if the MPAA didn't have a monopoly and since their raters are anonymous they are beyond scrutiny.  If there were other pre-distribution rating agencies, people (parents in particular) and theater owners could choose the rating system that better suited their values and/or tastes.  Until then, I don't take the ratings from the MPAA very seriously.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Napoleon at Elba

My knowledge of 19th century European history is rudimentary at best.  For the longest time, I thought that Napoleon had spent the end of his days in exile on the island Elba.   While he did spend time exiled on Elba, it was for a short amount of time and before his defeat at Waterloo.  His end days were spent in exile on another, far more remote, island named St. Helena.

Napoleon went to Elba after his loss in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and abdicated from his title of Emperor of France.  Elba appears to be a beautiful place. If I were exiled, it would nice place to spend my time.  It is in the Mediterranean not too far from his native Corsica.   He lived in a villa, no prison cell.  He was given an escort of a 1000 men and the title of Emperor of Elba.  In the nine months he was there he formed an army and navy, he ruled over the 110,000 people, developed the iron mines and resided over the island's social calendar.

After he escaped from Elba, he returned to Paris and was greeted by the people with cheer and was reinstated as Emperor.  He then took up arms again and returned to the battlefield and met his biggest defeat at Waterloo in what is now Belgium.  When he was sent to exile this time, it was not a cushy exile.  No one wanted to ever see him again.  He was sent to St. Helena because it was the one of the most remote islands in the British Empire.   It was damp, windswept and mostly desolate.  He spent the last five or so years of his life depressed and sickly.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Great Migrations

The Great Migration is a term we use to describe the mass migration of Americans of African descent, most of them descendant of slaves, to the cities of the north.  The first great migration took place between 1910 and 1930 when 1.6 million African Americans left their homes in the Jim Crow South for northern American cities like Detroit, New York, Chicago and Cleveland.  During this time period, the lynching of blacks in the South was happening on an estimated average of one every four days.  The Great Migration is a good example of how economics can drive history.  When the economy improved in the northern US, many of the factories in the north needed more labor.  My family immigrated south from French Canada during this same boom.  Opportunity allowed many to move to a better situations. The move to the new locale had its challenges. Many of the other ethnic groups did not welcome them particularly the urban Irish who were losing jobs to cheaper labor.

The Second Great Migration started during World War II, when factory jobs were many, through the booming time of the 1950's and 1960's.  Five million African Americans migrated from the South this time spreading out West to California, to the Midwest as well as North. Much of the migration routes of families can be traced by the train and other travel routes of the times. For example, Mississippi families migrated to the Chicago area, Alabamans to Ohio and Michigan cities and Louisianans over to California. Up to this point, African Americans were thought to be rural folk This is also where the Black American middle class got its roots.

Author Toni Morrison's family is one of the families that migrated in the First Great Migration.  Her maternal grandparent migrated from Alabama to Lorain, Ohio (on Lake Erie) in 1910 after they lost the family farm.  Her father's family migrated from Georgia to the same town where both sides of the family worked in steel mills.  The Nobel Prize winning author is famous to being a voracious reader, even as a child.   If she had grown up in the Jim Crow South, depending on what state and what year, it is possible that she wouldn't have been allowed to read, to attend a good school or even have a library card.  The world would be missing one of America greatest writers.  You have to wonder who or what other potential was lost during the lynchings in the Jim Crow South.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Don't Be Afraid to Say Revolution

I know a lot of people who are not interested in politics.  Most people don't get interested in politics until they have to.  For me, it was my "Approaches to Politics" class at Bryant College when I was surrounded by Young Republicans.  I was almost always in the minority in any discussion in class.  I was often revolted by some of their opinions and I began to understand why my working class parents were Democrats.  Each time I heard the privileged individuals call a working class person lazy, each time I stepped out of my beaten Dodge Dart into the parking lot surrounded by the smell of new car, each time I heard one laugh at one of the janitors ... I was driven further and further to the left.  I would often say that we were doomed, as a nation, if my fellow classmates were the future leaders of industry.  I regret how correct I actually was.

When I was in my 20's, I thought I was on the radical left.  It wasn't until I moved to Boston in the 1990's and actually met people who were on the radical left, that I realized that I wasn't radical at all.  I realized that people on the far left are as whacked as those on the far right.  Now that my political dust has settled, I have landed on left-of-center clinging desperately, with less faith daily, to a dysfunctional political system. I can see why some people run away screaming from politics.  Everyone has their own sets of facts, stats and favorite pundits. I think of how many hours I've spent yelling back and forth with friends in bars, at parties and on road trips.  We must have looked like such assholes.  Politics is fun, even funny sometimes, but is tiring and sometimes ugly.

Regardless of how far left I thought I was, I have never attended a protest.  Never held a sign, never chanted a slogan.  I've driven by and beeped a few times for protests against the Iraq war. For the most part, I find the protests annoying.  They never seem to accomplish anything and I have always felt that they probably do more harm to their causes than good. I am no activist, not because I am apathetic, but because I have not really seen anyway that actually has a positive effect on change. My political activity, in addition to arguing in bars, mostly involve writing letters, blog posts, attending town meetings and an occasional phone call to a politician.  Nowadays, I am slowly appreciating why one would attend a protest, not because it would affect change, but simply because nothing else will.  So attending a protest, might at least make you feel good and give you the delusion that you are doing something.  Calling your Senator or Rep. isn't going to do anything when a corporation lobbyist can wipe out any appeal you might have as a voter.  For the first time in my life I am tempted to join the protest, for in a world where nothing you do can change anything, it would nice to be around a bunch of people who at least share your concerns.

I have no idea what the Occupy Wall Street folks are up to. They don't seem to know themselves.  Is Wall Street at the root of this country's problems?  Probably, yes.  So Wall Street is probably good place to start.  Their disrespect for environment, their blind dedication to the bottom-line, their true lack of accountability and ethics ... do you really need anything specific to complain about Wall Street?  Revolt is in the air regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on. Can you imagine if Occupy Wall Street crowd got together with the Tea Party movement and rallied together?  I realize that these two crowds probably have little in common, other than dissent, but that might just be enough.  Earlier this week, one of my favorite thinkers Cornell West, twitted "Don't Be Afraid to Say Revolution."  Probably the most profound statement I have seen on Twitter.  Are we afraid to call it a revolution?  Perhaps. The Age of Revolution took place from 1775 to 1848.  Perhaps we are there again.  After see what has been happening in the Middle East and Northern Africa, it certainly seems that way.  Is this a time of new political thought? or are we just a group of whiners?  I don't know, but I may just show up at the protest this weekend when they organize in Burlington.  Not because I see solutions in sight, but because I see no other options.  Thanks for Dr. West, I am not afraid to say "revolution."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why We Should Thank Rod Stewart for Grunge

The current state of rock 'n roll couldn't be better.  The music is more accessible than ever and the bands are, if not better, then they are certainly more plentiful than they have ever been.  We all owe awful music of the early 1970's a great deal of gratitude.  If not for the likes of Rod Stewart and the Jackson Five churning out the trite crap that still cling to our synapses like dog poo on our shoes, the punk rockers would not have rebelled against it. If not for the punk rockers, like the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, the Ramones and The Clash, then other types of rock 'n roll might not have ever happened.  I am not a huge fan of punk, but I do appreciate what they did for popular music.  Rock 'n roll was in a rut and punk rock gave it a well needed kick.

I usually don't have a lot of use for genre.  I tend to think that when you start putting music (or any creative form) into categories, you start losing what it is all about.  Rock 'n roll is about freedom and rebellion, so when a bunch of corporate executives start packaging it and putting it into easily defined boxes of "country & western," "rock," "rock-a-billy" or "blue grass" etc, it stops being about rebellion and starts being about revenue.  No one doubts that some good has come out of the business of music, but those of us who like expanding horizons, have to look elsewhere.  In 1978, Neil Young had just released his Comes a Time album.  This is a decent traditional acoustic album, not his best and not his worst.  Then he heard the Sex Pistols and Devo and he became embarrassed of his own work.  He tried to pull Comes a Time from the shelves; he even bought a bunch of them himself to prevent his fans from hearing it. This might be one of the reasons this album is lesser known than a lot of his others.  While most musicians in his circle were recoiling from the punk movement, Young embraced it.  He immediately started working on Rust Never Sleeps, perhaps his best album, solo or otherwise.

If you listen to the second side of Rust Never Sleeps (for those of you who don't have vinyl, I am talking about the second half of the album), it doesn't sound like California in 1979 but more like Seattle in 1992.  Here is where grunge was born.  It is angry, socially conscious, full of distortion and ambiguity.  There are no answers in the lyrics, only images at war with each other and the listener.  You don't sit put this album on if you intend to relax.  It was recorded live at San Francisco's Cow Palace, but the audience noise was removed giving it a rawer sound than most studio albums.  Side one is acoustic with some of his most powerful lyrics with songs like "Pocahontas" and "The Thrasher."  He recorded some of these during the Comes a Time sessions.  I can see why these songs didn't make it onto that album.  They fit better with the angry songs of side two. In 1978, it took someone who had creative control and a large following to produce something like Rust Never Sleeps. Nowadays, with people carrying virtual recording studios in their pockets, the business executives only has control of your creativity if you want them to.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teddy Ballgame and the Elusive .400

I once sat in the center field bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston with a foreign co-worker and tried to explain the rules of baseball to him. Since he was from India and familiar with cricket, it was a lot easier than if he had never seen a ball game, but it was still very difficult. Baseball is an odd game, not much like most team sports where the offense has the ball and drive it down a field of grass or ice, into a goal or over a line for a given amount of time.  Baseball is not timed, has no goal but a plate and the ball doesn't score but the player does. It is much complicated than it seems and yet, most Americans know how to play even if they have never even tried themselves.

Baseball is a game of failures. In Major League baseball, a good hitter will fail 70% of the time, hitting only three times while coming up to bat ten times. Getting three hits (H's) in ten at bats (AB's) is called a 300 hitter because their average is .300 (H/AB).  The best hitter of all time failed 60% of the time aka a 400 hitter.  Of course, I am talking about Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.  He is the last hitter to hit .400 and he did so 70 years ago.  Only a few players since then have come close.  The two most recently were Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins (1977 hit .388) and George Brett of the Kansas City Royals (1980 hit .390).

Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 and what I have always found amazing about this is that he did not win the MVP award (Most Valuable Player).  That award went to Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees winning with 291 votes to Williams's 254.  1941 was a great year for hitters because this is also the year that DiMaggio had his famous record setting 56 game hitting streak.  If I had to pick one of these players, I would pick the player who hit .406 for an entire year over the player who had at least one hit per game 56 times in a row.  But since I wasn't even born in 1941, it is a moot point.  For those 56 games, DiMaggio hit .408.  Impressive, but for the same time period Williams hit .417.  Is it more impressive to spread them out over consistent games?  I don't think so.  Williams had a 21 hitting streak in May that year where he hit .536 ... that is amazing.  With hitting like that baseball is more of a game of success than failure, but Williams in an oddity.

Why did DiMaggio get the MVP?  For one, he was a much better fielder than Williams.  With poor defense, Williams would have been a great Designated Hitter but that rule wasn't added until 1973.   When Red Sox fans compare Williams with Carl Yastrzemski (Yazz) who replaced him, there is no comparison.  Williams was a better hitter but Yazz was the complete player, like DiMaggio.  Also, Williams was not as likable as DiMaggio.  Williams didn't like the fans and didn't handle the media well. Since it was the media voting for MVP that alone could explain it. Williams was very stubborn guy. Because he always hit to right field, opposing teams would often shift to the right sometimes leaving a huge gap in left field.  Even though he had the ability to hit into left, he refused to do so.  This didn't go over well with the fans.  Can you imagine his average if he had?

Batting average is supposed to measure a player's ability to hit. Because of this, when a player reaches base by way of a walk (BB), it doesn't affect his batting average. So the AB of the Batting Average stat doesn't include walks. As of 1953, AB doesn't include sacrifice flies either. A sacrifice fly is when the batter gets an out by hitting a fly ball into the outfield but moves one of his teammates along on the base path (from first to second or third to home etc.) Because this is good thing, the idea was that the batter's average shouldn't be penalized nor rewarded. So batting average formula could be seen as  AVG = H / ( AB-BB-SF).  But the AB stat on its own excludes walks and sacrifices.

I bring up the rule of 1953 because if it had applied to Ted Williams, his average in 1941 would have been somewhere around.411.  So if anyone ever comes close to hitting .400 in the future, keep it in mind, until they hit at least .411, their names shouldn't be put beside Ted Williams'.  I would love to have seen what he would have done in 1942.  But unfortunately, he didn't play in 1942.  Just a few months after he was came in second in MVP voting, Japan attached Pearl Harbor.  He didn't return to baseball until 1946.  This is where the true sacrifice took place.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Beginning of the Great Revival

Currently, the American economy is pretty bad and our image overseas has taken some hits.  Despite this, American pop culture and entertainment is still king around the world.  Movie theater receipts may be down in the US with Americans streaming in high definition in the comfort of their own living rooms.  Our film industry is booming in a lot of places overseas.  The Chinese market is the largest in the world with 1.3 billion potential customer, but their censors only allow 20 foreign films a year to be shown in theaters.  Movie theaters are being built in China at a rate of two per day.  It would be a hit to our economy if, for some reason, China would stop showing American films even for a handful of films.  This summer's biggest releases, the latest installments of Transformers and Harry Potter, were delayed until late July this year.  Why?  Because the government has been blocking foreign films for most of the summer to give maximum attention to The Beginning of the Great Revival.  It was also produced by the state and is just a huge propaganda film.

The Beginning of the Great Revival is about the founding of the Communist Party of China.  It dramatizes the events from 1911 to 1921 in a positive and heroic light.  It is directed by John Woo, the same guy who directed Mission: Impossible II and Face/Off.   It is less than two hours long but has an all-star cast of 100 performers that any Chinese film goer will recognize.  In some parts of the country, it has been the only film available to watch.  All school children are required to see it.

I'd love to see this film purely for curiosity sake.  It is getting panned (2 stars out of 10 on  I am sure some of the bad reviews are due to the anger over the censorship.  It probably has no chance of coming to the Vermont.  With so many great American films, British or French (or from the rest of the free world) coming out every year, I think I can skip this one.  As an American tax payer, enough of my money goes towards the Chinese economy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Werther Effect

The US's homicide rate is half that of our suicide rate. Suicides are not big news so we generally don't hear about them unless it is someone famous or someone you know committing it.  If you look at all the stats of American suicides, the typical  suicide would be a 75 year old white man who is unemployed.  Men usually commit suicide with guns while women use some sort of poison or drugs.  Because of this, men are more successful and the numbers skew towards them.  Black people are much more likely to die in a homicide than suicide; for whites, the opposite is true. Some suicidologists (sociologists that specialize in suicide) theorize that African Americans have many external factors that they can blame for their depression (institutional racism, urban crime, etc.), while most Caucasians have mostly internal factors.  The idea persists in the American society that if you are white and unsuccessful, then you only have yourself to blame.  Oddly enough, nations where life is easier and there is more opportunity, like the US, have higher suicide rates than where life is miserable.  The US, Japan and Germany have consistently high suicide rates. Perhaps spending most of the day trying to find food or water prevents you from reflecting on how miserable you actually are.

Suicide numbers spike after a famous person commits suicide.  Not only do they spike, but they spike for people who seem to have a lot in common with the person who died.  For example, a lot of young blonde women committed suicide after Marilyn Monroe offed herself.  The month she died there were 200 more suicides in the US than any other August in that era. This is called the Werther Effect. It gets its name from the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.  This is an 18th century German novel where the protagonist, Werther, kills himself after a long period of unrequited love.  After its publication, a slew of copycat suicides followed committed by young men in the same method as Werther in the novel with a pistol to the head.  You might see this as the beginning of blaming the media for suicide.  Does the media or a novel or a heavy metal song plant the idea of suicide in the person's head?  No, of course not.  The idea is probably already there and when someone they idolize or admire kills themselves it may just act as permission being granted.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

There Will Be No December 30th in Samoa This Year

The Independent State of Samoa is an island nation about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.  It is a short distance east of the International Date Line (the imaginary line that separates today from tomorrow).  In 1892 they agreed to be in this time zone so that they could on the same business day as their largest trading partner, the USA.  Before the invention of the telegraph, it wasn't very important to have a standard calendar with consistent time zones because people and data traveled so slowly.

On December 29th of this year, 2011, Samoa will be changing sides of the international date line.  The line will be redrawn so that they will be west of the line.  The change is due to the fact that they now do more business with Australia, China and New Zealand than they with the US.  They prefer to be on the same day as their strongest trading partners.  So after the change, they will be three hours ahead of Australia rather than 21 hours behind. Seems like a logical change from their point of view.  What makes this really interesting is that they will not have a December 30th this year.  At midnight on December 29th, they will be on December 31st.  So if you live on Samoa and your birthday is December 30th ... you are off the hook.

This isn't the first change they have made to realign themselves with Australia.  Back in 2009 they stopped driving on the right side of the road and changed to the left.  That must have a been a blast!   The changes for this were economic as well because it is much cheaper for them to import cars from Australia, with the driving column on the right, than to import from the US.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

My 2012 Presidential Predictions

Four years ago or so, a little later than now in the election cycle, I made a political prediction that came true. I am much better at making political predictions than at making baseball predictions. This prediction was made at the point that we knew who the two presidential candidates were, but we did not know who their running mates would be. I predicted that if Obama didn't pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate that John McCain would respond by choosing Sarah Palin, then the hardly known Alaskan governor. I figured that he was so behind in the polls that he wanted new blood, female new blood in particular, to boost his numbers. Unfortunately, for him, he probably lost as many voters as she gained when she was very divisive and charismatic ... taking over the spotlight.

Very seldom does the US vote out an incumbent president, but it has happened three times in my lifetime: Carter defeats Ford (1976), Reagan defeats Carter (1980) and Clinton defeats Bush (1992). This is a sign of the times, perhaps, American voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Federal government. I think the most relevant of the elections in my lifetime (for this blog post) is Reagan's re-election in 1984. At this point in Reagan's presidency (when I compare him to Obama) in 1983, his approval numbers were very low just as low as Obama's now. Obama is around 42% approval now with personal approval a bit higher. Reagan's approval rate was 37% in January 1983 and on the rise to 45% by October. A Gallop poll in 1983 predicted that Walter Mondale would defeat Reagan by a substantial margin. This is obviously very wrong since the opposite happened with Reagan taking 49 states. Lesson here: a lot can happen in a year. What happened in that year? The most important events for him were probably the pulling out of Lebanon (an extremely unpopular operation), a quick military victory in Grenada and of course, the big one, the economy recovered in a very big way. These events along with Reagan's political savvy and charisma and his opponent's lack thereof, resulted in a victory for the incumbent.

So could Obama win re-election? Of course, he could. Is it likely that big events like this will happen in the next year? The economy shows no sign of recovery, like it or not, this is the biggest factor in any election even though president really don't have that big of an affect on it. I think the other big factor in lack of a good candidate in the Republican party which seems like a mess these days. Making political predictions a year in advance is fool hardy. So this is why I make them now, so that I have an excuse for them being wrong. I am doing this earlier than I did in the last election cycle, so I will be predicting the nominee for the Republican party and the running mate. Also, I am going to predict a long shot for the Obama campaign.

1st Prediction: Almost on a daily basis, the Republican nominees for president have a different leader. Businessman Herman Cain had a surge after the first debate, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann was the front runner for a time after she won the Iowa Straw Poll and now, as of today, Rick Perry has a commanding lead. But my prediction goes towards Mitt Romney. Regardless of what I have said in the past about the Republican party, the sane people still out-number the crazies. Like McCain, Romney is one of the few nominees that doesn't scare me and if not for the crazy element of his own party (aka the Tea Party), he would probably be a decent president. He hasn't lead the pack for a while but he is always been in the top tier. He is approximately in the same spot that McCain was five years ago or so. Romney will win New Hampshire and the rest of the pack will start dropping out thereafter. His running mate? Michelle Bachmann. Like McCain, his right wing chops are in question. Not only will Bachmann help appease the Tea Party but the fact that she is woman will only help the ticket.

2nd Prediction: I know this one sounds far fetch, but I am throwing it out there anyway. Obama originally brought Joe Biden onto the ticket to help fill a hole in his resume, namely, Obama's lack of international affairs experience. Let's face it Biden has been a drain on this administration (PR-wise) and he'd a much better choice for Secretary of State than Hillary Clinton. Since Hillary (and Bill) have proved that they can play well with Obama, I predict that Hillary and Joe are going to switch jobs. The Obama / Clinton ticket would win it all.

So here it: the Obama/Clinton ticket will defeat the Romney / Bachmann ticket for 2012.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ponds, Lakes and Fjords

The first house my wife and I ever bought was near Monkton Pond in Monkton Vermont back in 2001. What is interesting about Monkton Pond is that it is sometimes a pond and sometimes a lake. It is my understanding that the difference between a pond and a lake is not the size of the body of water although most lakes are bigger. The difference is that a pond is fed by an underground source while a lake is overground. A good part of the year, Monkton Pond is fed by over ground source like streams but when the water is low, they don't exist. The name of the pond changes as well based on who you talk to. If you ask a local, the pond's name is Monkton Pond. If you ask a realtor, it is called Cedar Lake. Apparently, Cedar Lake sounds nicer on brochures and websites.

One of the great advantages of living in Vermont is that we live just a short drive away from one of the most vast and beautiful countries on the planet, Canada. You could say that the US is as beautiful as Canada but there are much fewer people in Canada. It makes it so much more accessible. Our national parks have traffic jams of RV's and campgrounds that are at capacity. While theirs have little traffic and many camp sites available to you. We honeymooned in Jasper National Park in Alberta in 1998 and were in a campground, "Wapiti," that must have been 90% empty. Why would anyone deal with the American RV traffic when the Canadian alternative is available?

Our latest trip to Canada was a road trip from our home, a six and half hour drive to the Saguenay, Quebec (same as our recent road trip to Philadelphia). If you look at a globe you can see how Quebec City and Montreal are connected by the St. Lawrence River. North of Quebec City the St. Lawrence widens becomes a seaway (aka a sound). It is basically salt water at this point. In 2002 we drove on the east side of the St. Lawrence seaway up to the Gaspe Pennisula where it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. We camped in Forillon National Park with a view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This year we drove up the west side of the seaway, not as far north and rented a cabin in Petit Saguenay. The attraction? the Fjord.

A fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep cliffs along its sides that were carved by glacial activity. The picture I embedded was taken from one of the bays entering the fjord. I could not go any further with my kayak because the weather in the fjord is rough and unpredictable. I don't have a sea kayak either so I turned back because I don't have a death wish. The cliffs in this fjord get higher and steeper. They are spectacular.

The area where the fjord meets the seaway makes for excellent whale watching in late July and the month of August. We saw many minke and finn whales and possibly a blue whale. There are two blue whales in the region. We may have seen one in the distance, but the conditions were not clear enough to verify. It is also a good area to view beluga whales, but the weather conditions prevented us from seeing them. We did see a lot of grey seals. This picture is of a minke whale.

I have heard a number of Americans complain about Quebec saying the people there are rude. I cannot say this is my experience at all. I have been visiting Quebec since I was a kid and I haven't had any problems with rudeness or attitude. I do hate the way they drive up there, a driving style that makes Boston drivers seem sane and polite. Once they leave the confines of their cars, the Quebecois have been nothing but polite in my experience. I do not speak French well. I start each interaction with a polite "parlez vous Anglais" (do you speak English). The further north you go, the more likely the answer will be "non," but most service employees (waiters, hotel or tourism workers) are bi-lingual. To me, the challenge of the foreign language is all a part of the adventure.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Suing McDonald's Over Hot Coffee

Here in America we love to tell jokes and complain about lawyers. Even though, as John Adams said, we are "not a nation of men, but of laws," our public discourse doesn't seem to acknowledge this at times. I don't understand why so many people get obsessed by high profile trials like the OJ or the Casey Anthony case. Recently, someone that I know, personally, went to trial for a fairly high profile case here in Vermont and I was amazed at the on-line discourse about the case. People were following it very closely, people who didn't know anyone involved. Their comments were so vitriolic and outrageous, it is hard to see how anyone can have a fair trial when the court of public opinion is so decisive and powerful. Even after the trial is decided, the cases seem to obtain a life of their own.

The Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants is one of the high profile cases that seems to get brought up time and again for the past (almost) 20 years. The longer in the past the case is, the more distorted the facts get. It comes up a lot in conversations when people bring up how Americans are "sue-happy," ready to bring anyone to court to make a buck. People say that a woman dropped a hot coffee on herself while driving and sued McDonald's for millions. The facts of the case are much more complicated.
  • For one, she didn't drop the coffee. The styrofoam cup that was carrying the coffee dissolved in her hand. This is because the coffee was over 170 degrees Fahrenheit (this is the low estimate). The standard cup of coffee is 140 degrees.
  • She had third degree burns on her thighs, groin and buttocks. She had to be in the hospital for 8 days getting skin removed and repaired.
  • She was not driving, she was the passenger.
  • The car was parked while she was opening the top of the coffee to put cream and sugar in it.
  • She didn't sue for millions. She sued for the balance of her medical bills that her Medicare didn't pay. She was 79 years old. McDonald's only offered her $800 which didn't cover it. The jury moved in her favor awarding her $2.9 million. The judge reduced it to $260,000.00 (about 2 days worth of profit for McDonald's).
She would have gotten more if she wasn't at fault at all. McDonald's was found 80% guilty while Liebeck was found 20% guilty. A good part of their guilt was that they had already been sued for this offense over 700 times. The smoking gun in the case was a fax that they had sent to their chains, over and over, telling their teenage employees that ... whenever you think the coffee is hot enough, think again (I am paraphrasing).

So the next time you hear a Republican claim that we need tort reform, they are talking about stopping the ability of 79 year old ladies from suing large corporations (their contributors) for their organizational negligence. If corporations have the free speech of individuals, surely they have the responsibility of individuals as well. Coffee at McDonald's nowadays are delicious and safe, thanks to the lawyers.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


I spent a good part of my youthful summers in a row boat. My father and brother loved to fish so I did get a lot of chances to throw out a line or two, but most of my experience in the boat was just going out and adventuring. While most of the kids I grew up were hanging around the city, bored and/or getting in trouble, I was hanging out at our old roadside camp off of the Pawkatuck River in Ashaway, Rhode Island having myself a grand ole time. I would go out in the boat for hours sometimes looking for turtles, but most of the time not doing much at all. I knew that part of the river very well. I knew where all the good stumps were to find sunning turtles, I knew where to find the swans and where the good rocks were to jump off for a swim. The river was mine.

Of course, I live very far from the Rhode Island / Connecticut border these days. The only river close to me that comes close to Pawkatuck, in regards to me knowing it well, is the Lamoille River. My boat of choice these days is a kayak. Getting the kayak to and from the river is more of a chore than the actual kayaking. It is a short drive but tying the boats firmly on the roof of the car is time consuming and taxing. It is not like having a cabin on the river where you can just leave your row boat there by the river at your beckoning.

The Lamoille is quite beautiful. Yesterday we were heading into a turn and we were looking at a hill (possibly a small mountain) whose reflection was hitting the water just right. With its green reflection almost as livid as the actual mountain, we appeared to be floating into a double mountain. We put the boats in the water in Jeffersonville near Bert's Boats and went up stream until we were hungry. We stopped on an island and had a picnic dinner before heading back. Downstream is my preferred mode of transportation.

The Lamoille was named "La Mouette" by Samuel de Champlain, the French word for gull which he witnessed at the river's source. At some point in its history, the name was changed to Lamoille by accident when some map maker forgot to cross their T's. I haven't seen any gulls on the river yet, but plenty of heron. No La Moilles either.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bait Dogs

I often refer to my dogs as rescues. This is not entirely correct. My hound was in a no-kill shelter when we got him. My lab as with a family that knew they were neglecting him and had the wherewithal to ask for help. Of my three dogs, only my shepard could actually be considered a rescue. We found her from a classified ad. There was a large litter of German Shepards and she was the runt. Apparently, no one wanted the runt. She was only a few weeks old, her belly was bloated with worms and she was living outside. I don't know what would have happened to her.

This weekend, I met a dog that was a real rescue. Duke is a bull terrier, also known as a pit bull. What a sweet dog! He was once a bait dog. Bait dogs are dogs that used by dog fighters to train their fighting dogs. Their mouths are often taped closed so that they cannot defend themselves from the fighter. They don't need to be skilled, they can use any dog. Often, dog fighters get their dogs from ads in the paper for "free dogs" and some of them are stolen from their owners. (Are you feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity yet?)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mountain Landis and the Ivory Age of Baseball

Anyone who knows anything about baseball history, knows the name Keneslaw Mountain Landis as the first commissioner of baseball. He is commonly thought of as the man who saved baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. After the biggest scandal ever in baseball, when the White Sox threw the World Series, Landis took charge of the league with the iron hand of a tyrant and helped usher in what a lot of sports fan think of the Golden Age of baseball. What followed the scandal was the era of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Lou Gehrig and Joe (and Dom) DiMaggio etc. etc. I like to refer to this era as the Ivory Era rather than Golden because it was only half as great as it could have been. Half the players that could have played could not simply because of the color of their skin. We will never know how well such players as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige or Cool Papa Bell matched up against these white players in their prime. This tragedy is in large part due to Landis. He was a staunch opponent of integration and worked very hard against it.

It was not written anywhere in the league's bi-laws that blacks couldn't play with whites. It was what was called a Gentleman's Agreement, an unwritten rule that no one dare challenged. Upon Landis' death ini 1944, he was replaced as commissioner by Happy Chandler (a fiction writer could not create better names). Chandler was approached by many black players and he, in clear conscience, could not tell them to their faces that they couldn't play with the white players. He was open to integration, but the owners were not (the so-called gentlemen). He had all sixteen of them vote on whether to integrate. Only one owner, Branch Rickey (one of my personal heroes), the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, voted for integration.

Branch Rickey went on to do this on his own. He acquired Jackie Robinson and had him play in the Dodgers AAA club in Montreal because Canadians aren't as screwed-up about race as those of from the land of the free are. Every baseball fan knows all about what Robinson went through. Rickey chose him as the first black player not only for his playing abilities but for his personal character. He faced death threats, threats to his family and insults ad nauseum not only from players and fans but sometimes from his own teammates. Rickey continued to acquire black players building his team to playoff berths in 1941, '47, '49, '52 and '53.

The teams that integrated early are the teams that dominated the sport for the next two decades. It is with much regret that I point out that the very last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox (my favorite team) with Pumpsie Green in 1959. The city of Boston today is still very segregated so this should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever lived there. It wasn't the curse of the Babe that prevented this franchise from winning for so long; it was the stupidity of racism. The team was so racist in this era that you couldn't be on the team if you weren't Irish or Italian at given times. For awhile only Catholics were allowed on the team. I started following the team in 1976, not too long after this era. Jim Rice was my favorite player as a kid. Rice has claimed many times that the specter of racism was over by the time he played at Fenway. I am never tired of hearing that and a little grateful. I don't know how I would have grown up thinking about race without seeing such a spectacular outfielder playing the flies off the Green Monster as Jim Rice.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How To Fix Everything

When I was a kid I thought that all adults were smart. You can say that I am disappointed. I always thought that most grown ups had their shit together or at least, I assumed that most of them could communicate .... um ... like adults. After working as a cog in the corporate machine for the past two decades, I have grown jaded in this respect. My expectations are so low that I just assume that any communication that comes my way is going to be badly written and all too often, incomprehensible. I used to assume that anyone that had a white collar job had the prerequisite communication skills that is required for a job of pushing paper or in my case, pushing data. I don't anymore. I realize in the workplace, expecting perfect grammar in emails is unreasonable. I am sure my grammar is far from perfect as well. But I don't think I am being unreasonable by expecting clear communication adhering to some degree of business protocol, at least as high as the level of the book reports I submitted while I was in high school. On a daily basis, I get emails from people who don't know the difference between "than" and "then" or "your" and "you're" or "since" and "sense" or who think "alot" is a word. How did they get through college? I don't know. But my respect for a college education is getting lower and lower the more I work in IT. I only wish I could grade their emails. A good 50-60% of them would fail. This hasn't been any different any white collar job I have had and I don't expect it to get better any time soon.

It is an on-going problem, not just in IT, but in the workplace in general. Soft skills are very bad everywhere. I have worked with some amazingly intelligent people in my career. Some of them can troubleshoot data networks and write integrated computer code, so quickly and efficiently, it would blow your mind. Yet if you ask them to explain a problem to a customer or to a manager ... to "document" their work ... it is like asking them for their mother board. Blank faces and resistance follows. Managers struggle with this all the time. They want to send their employees to training for writing skills or customer service skills ... but can you really train for these so-called soft skills? You can try, but I have seen no evidence of success. By the time people are in the workplace, these skills are deeply ingrained. You might as well try to teach them to type with their feet. By the time you are a teenager or young adult, you have already acquired these skills or you probably never will. What is the answer? How do we fix this for the future? You can say a lot of things, but one of them is Universal Pre-school.

Economist James Heckman says that if we pay now (for preschool) we'll save later when the kids are adults. Not only does early intervention help create adults with better communication skills but they commit less crime and are less likely to be on welfare. So instead of sitting at home watching television or in some unproductive child care, they are in school, playing, interacting, socializing and learning. Heckman's study followed 120 students in a poor neighborhood in Michigan over a span of 30 years. Half the students, the control group, didn't go to preschool. 30 years later, the students in the control group made, on the average $30k less and were arrested twice the amount of time.

Prisons, courts, crime and poor productivity are extremely expensive, far more expensive than preschool. The ROI (return on investment) is off the wall on preschool. For every dollar we spend as a society on each student, we could get or save from $30 to $300. Similar studies has been done with several results, most recently in California by the Rand Corporation. The basic idea, people who have been to preschool need less training and are more productive citizens and employees.


This make me regret that I didn't go to preschool. Perhaps I'd would be more productive if I had.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Watershed Moments

Probably the biggest watershed moment of anyone alive today are the events of September 11, 2001. Everyone has a story of where they were that day. I was in South Burlington, Vermont on the phone with one of my clients, Michele. She called to inform me that she was going to be late for our conference call because she was stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. During the conversation, she said, in shock, that a plane is "flying very low." She did not see the crash from her vantage point. This was the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. While she said this to me, I could overhear a co-worker, Mike, say "a plane has hit the World Trade Center" (I am paraphrasing). I was confused because I thought if Michele was watching a plane fly low, how could Mike already have that news on the net. News travels fast on the net, but not that fast! Of course, Mike was reading news about the first plane that caused the traffic that was Michele was in watching the second plane.

The events of 9/11 didn't change my life or have any direct affect on me. What did affect me was what happened on 9/12/01 and beyond. Considering how awful American foreign policy has been toward the Middle East in the past century, the attacks did not surprise me. What did surprise was how my government, run by a president that had no mandate, could use the events of 9/11 to justify invasions, torture and violations of our privacy and the American people let him do it. Not only did they let him do it but he gained popularity while he did it. This did affected me. I expected heinous crimes from maniacs and religious zealots, I did not expect it from my government. Looking back at myself prior to 9/11, I feel naive. I used to consider myself an independent voter. I have voted for Republicans in the past (Senators Chafee and Jeffords come to mind). Since 9/11 I haven't voted for a single Republican on any level of government and I don't plan to ever again. I am not an independent now, I am an anti-Republican. Not only for the actions of the Bush administration, but for those who let them do it and for those who defend him ... you will get nothing from me. I just thought my country was better than that. Again, I feel naive.

Prior to 9/11, the only other events that qualified as watershed moments for me were the assassination of John Lennon and Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Most people older than me will refer to the Kennedy assassination as their watershed moment or of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. A watershed moment can also be something positive like the moon landing or the Beatles arrival in America. These happened before I was born or when I was very young. Many people say that these events changed their lives as it changed how they thought about the world, made them more bitter, unsafe or paranoid. In the case of the positive watershed, these made them feel more connected or more motivated for greatness. I can related to these. The events of the larger world can certainly affect the inner self. I would hope that this is what motivates us to change the world ... in a positive way.

In the 19th century, for Americans, one of the big watershed moments was the bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. This marked the beginning of the American Civil War. The first shots were fired at around 4am. By late evening news had already hit New York newspapers. This is impressive in the days before telephones and automobiles. The American poet Walt Whitman (my personal favorite) was leaving a theater in Manhattan at around midnight. He stood on the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel reading the special edition news. The street were abuzz with the news. For those who didn't have a paper, some read aloud for them (the 19th century equivalent of Twitter). At this point in his life, Whitman was a muckraking journalist making money by trashing the Irish immigrant and drumming the beat of demagoguery. He was fast on his way to being his generations Rush Limbaugh and a footnote in a history. The events at Fort Sumter, and the war that followed, sent Whitman into service as a male nurse in Washington DC. What he saw there changed his life. He stopped writing hateful trash and wrote volumes of poetry that rocked the literary world. Leaves of Grass is perhaps the first great American collection of poetry and perhaps the beginning of modern poetry in English.

Perhaps I am leaning back on my personal history of liberal naivity by saying that I hope that some Whitman-like conversion is happening in the midst of this cluster fuck that is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the next great American poet is somewhere in the ranks of the military or another nurse in a field hospital. We can only hope that from the ashes of our greatest barbaric acts can come some contemplative beauty and reflection that will rock our worlds. I await another literary watershed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Soft Power and the Arab Spring

Whenever I talk to young people from overseas, I am always impressed with how popular the United States is with them. They all want to visit New York, LA, Nashville, Disney World ... American pop culture is king. They are not impressed (or probably informed of) American military might or our Constitution, but they are by the Foo Fighters, Gossip Girl and Ed Norton films. This is what is called soft power. For long term change, soft power is much more effective than hard power. We can trace the originas of the term soft power back to this quote from Lao Tzu:

"Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong."

Hard power is more immediate but doesn't cause lasting change. Neo-cons (new conservatives) are proponents of hard power, they believe that the recent events in the Middle East (the Arab Spring) were inspired by the US Iraqi and Afghanistani invasions. Hard power, of course, is the use of force to get what you want. Hard power is synonymous with nation building.

When I think of soft power, I think of a teenage girl (in Tunisia or Egypt perhaps) who somehow acquires a copy of "Sex in the City" or "Gossip Girl." She watches it and thinks to herself, they (Americans) can get away with this, they have the freedom to do this and no one arrests them? And then thinks, why not me? That is soft power. It is revolution from within.

Since the Middle East exploded this past winter with revolutions in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, civil war in Libya, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman (aka the Arab Spring) a lot of folks, particularly Americans, like to take credit for it. I have even heard some on the left claim that President Obama's speech in Cairo is what sparked it all. Ultimately, no one should get credit for the Arab Spring other than the people involved. It is a tremendously courageous thing they do. The only Americans that really should be patting themselves on the back for the Arab Spring are the folks at Twitter and Facebook. Without social media, the revolutions never would have happened. Social media is just a platform for the cinders of revolution letting the soft power come to a boil.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jefferson and Religion

The Smithsonian is publishing a new edition of the Jefferson Bible. I have blogged about the Jefferson Bible in the past. Thomas Jefferson wanted a version of The Bible that would stand up to the principles of the Enlightenment. He bounced the idea by several friends. He asked Joseph Priestley, the scientist that discovered oxygen, to take it on as a project. He wrote to friends abroad, the enlightened few of the era (often referred to The Republic of Letters). No one would go near it. To rewrite The Bible without the miracles and only validated history was controversial even back then. He ended up writing it himself and shared it with no one. No one saw the manuscript until after his death. John Adams would bother him often to take a peek at his secret project.

With the exception of Isaac Newton, Jefferson believed that Jesus was the greatest man in history. This is why he thought that the King James Bible was not a sufficient document to show the story of his life. He thought Jesus, who was not divine, produced the greatest progress in ethics in world history, even more so than Socrates. Of all Jefferson's accomplishments, he believed that his greatest was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This statute was the first of its kind in the world because it established the separation of church and state. So it may very well be his greatest achievement.

In his time Jefferson was widely thought of as a religious radical. At one point in his life, he predicted that, in 50 years, most young men in the nation would be Unitarians. I think he might be disappointed with our current makeup. As an ex-Unitarian myself, I find this amusing. During the election of 1796, it was believed that he was going to confiscate people’s Bibles. Perhaps one of the reasons why Adams defeated him. These types of stories always remind of the 2008 election when stories of Obama being a Muslim surfaced. Of course, these were untrue. Jeffferson believed in the neutrality of the government. He didn't care what people believed, he just thought they should have the freedom to pursue their own beliefs. This was indeed very radical at the time, even now in some circles.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cubs at Fenway

It has been almost 100 years since the Chicago Cubs have played in Fenway Park. I am overjoyed at the fact that I will get to see their return next weekend. I have tickets to Saturday's game and I am working on getting another one for Friday's game. I have the vacation day and I am heading out Friday morning for the five hour drive to the old town. I couldn't be more excited. I just hope the rain subsides.

The last time the Cubs played in Fenway was in the 1918 World Series where the Boston Red Sox beat them in six games thanks to their pitching phenom Babe Ruth (among others) who won game 1 (shut out) and game 4. Due to the Black Sox Scandal in 1919, where the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series, there will always be some doubt as to whether the Cubs also did so. In 1920, during the hearings in front of congress, White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, made a vague reference to getting the idea to throw the series because the Cubs did it in 1918. There is never any follow-through and there is no other "proof". This will always be another reason why Cubs fans will always dislike their neighboring fans on the south side.

The only thing that makes you think that the Cubs indeed threw the series is that the score was so low. The Cubs scored a total of 10 runs in the whole series, but since the Red Sox only scored 9 this seems irrelevant. Cubs committed a total of five errors in the whole series (Boston committed one) which is not a lot. When you throw a game of baseball, the easiest way to do so is to commit intentional errors. The infamous 1919 White Sox committed 12 and their opponent, the Cincinnati Reds, committed 13. This was not uncommon in that era, the 1917 World Series had a total of 23 errors. This only makes me conclude that the 1918 World Series was a great series between two great teams that had impeccable defenses (both fielding and pitching). The Cubs might have won if their best pitcher, Pete Alexander, had not had to leave due to World War I. Also, the Cubs had to play their home game in unfamiliar Comiskey Park because it had a larger capacity than their home field, Wrigley (at that point named Weeghman Park).

The 1918 World Series in famous for a few more interesting reasons. For one, it was the last World Series in which there were no home runs hit during the entire series. You really have to wonder how this would have changed if the Red Sox had Ruth playing as a position player every game rather than only pitching two of them. It was also played in early September, due to the War. This was an era where players had to leave their teams to go to War. Players also had to leave teams to make more money elsewhere. They didn't make a lot of money (hence the gambling). This was also the first time that The Star Spangled Banner was played at a game. It was played during the seventh inning stretch and was not yet the US national anthem. And every game was played in under two hours. The game has changed a lot.

Monday, May 9, 2011

FDR's Trip to Casablanca

In 1943 FDR became the first US president to fly overseas. He was also the first president since Lincoln to visit the troops during a war, no president had ever left the country during war time and no sitting president had ever been to Africa. On January 9th, 1943 FDR embarked on a trip to meet secretly with Churchill at the Casablanca Conference. The word "Casablanca" was transmitted as the place of the meeting. The Germans intercepted this and translated it literally to mean "white house." They assumed the meeting was to take place in DC and not the Moroccan city.

This was long before Air Force One could take the president anywhere on the globe in luxury. He disembarked on the presidential train. Because this was a secret trip, it headed north as if he were going on one of his trips home to Hyde Park. The train stopped somewhere north of DC and came back south on another track. It continued on to Miami. Can you imagine how this disrupted travel in the states? In Miami he met up with a Boeing Clipper and flew across the Atlantic to North Africa.

Churchill's travels were shorter but probably more uncomfortable. He flew from England in a bomber. Two mattresses were spread across the bottom of the plane. He burned his toe on the heater while trying to sleep. Stalin was invited but declined due to the besiege of Hitler upon Stalingrad. De Gaulle showed but only because Churchill threatened to recognize Henri Giraud as the leader of Free France. This was the first time the two French leaders would meet.

The union of the two French leader did little to affect the progress of the war. The major accomplishments of Casablanca was the call for Hitler's "unconditional surrender". They also created the second front in France instead of the Balkans. One has to wonder if this would have happened if Stalin had shown up. Some say this is where the war started to take a turn toward the Allies.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Green Up Day

I have split feelings about Vermont's Green Up Day. I have been living in Vermont for over a decade. Because neither my wife nor I have any roots in Vermont, I often get asked why we moved here. I usually say something about the high quality of life or the beauty of the landscape or the sense of community I have here. I often mention that we don't have billboards here nor do we have Adopt a Highway. We have Green Up Day instead. People take time out of their busy schedules to clean up their own roads. They gather the kids, put on their old clothes and gloves and head to the ditches. This is a great thing.

Green Up Day was started in 1979 by Governor Davis. Only 10% of it, currently, is funded by the state. The rest is funded by a non-profit called Green Up. It is always scheduled on the first Saturday in May. This year it is May 7th. We pick up our green plastic bags and sign up for a stretch of land at the town office then we are ready to go. I volunteer with the Westford middle school kids who Green Up the Friday before so that they do it on school day. I wait by the town garage near our dumpster to collect and co-ordinate the trash. We give out prizes for the most interesting piece of trash. On Saturday, I clean up my road and sometimes a sliver of route 128 if I have the energy left. People drive by, honk and wave giving me a thumbs up. I've been in Westford for about 5 years and I can think of 100 people already that know my name. I often forget this until Green Up Day when I hear those beeps and see a neighbor I know behind the wheel. It is a good reminder of why I moved here.

On the flipside of this, Green Up Day brings me down a bit. I spend a good part of that Saturday each year picking up cigarette butts, beer cans, soda cans, hard liquor bottles, fast food wrappers and lottery tickets. By the end of the day, as my back is crying in pain, I feel a real disdain for that slice of humanity that can't keep their trash in their cars. I realize that some of the trash is accidental trash that flew out of someone's window or garbage can. But we have all been on the highway while watching that lit cigarette get thrown out the window. Who are these people? Why do they think this is okay? This makes me angry. Each year a sin tax makes more and more sense to me even if it would only be used to fund Green Up Day. It works for me. Tax the hell out of them.

Recently, Vermont's current government representatives sparred over the sin tax, namely a tax on cigarettes. The tax would fund Gov. Shumlin's new healthcare proposal. The problem with this is that having a healthcare that is dependent on people smoking doesn't seem to be very forthcoming. If people decide to stop smoking where will your revenue stream come from? One of the arguments against the sin tax is that it will drive business over the border into tax-free New Hampshire, but wouldn't it drive the litter into New Hampshire as well. This works for me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Historical Perspective on the Federal Budget

Much is being said about the federal budget. Such large numbers seem so abstract. I find a historical perspective helps me understand the actual numbers.

Very few president have actually decreased the federal budgets. Presidents during great crises always increase spending. Lincoln during the Civil War, Wilson during World War I and FDR during WW II, George W Bush for his two wars all increased spending drastically. All but Bush increased taxes to pay for those wars. Presidents after big crises usually cut the budget but never bring them down to the previous levels before the crisis. If you take into account the average amount spent during Presidents terms, you get some interesting numbers.
  • John Adams was the first $10 million president.
  • Lincoln was the first $1 billion president. He inherited a $66 million budget and by 1865, at his death, it was $1.2 billion. This is a huge amount of money in 19th century dollars. This is an increase of 1800%, the largest in our history (including our current president ... so far). Lincoln had a civil war to pay for.
  • Wilson increased the budget six times ... World War I.
  • FDR is the first $50 billion president ... World War II and the Great Depression.
  • Eisenhower was the first $100 billion president.
  • Nixon was the first $100 billion ... Vietnam.
  • Reagan was the first $1 trillion president.
  • George W Bush was the first $2 trillion president ... his two wars.
  • Obama is the first $3 trillion president ... his two inherited wars and a recession.
You see a trend? Spending rarely goes down. If things continue at their current clip with the Obama administration, he will be the first $4 trillion president. As a nation, we usually like the spenders. Taft is our biggest cutter ... you don't see him on Mount Rushmore. Of all the presidents on Rushmore, the only cutter is Jefferson and he is probably more popular for his role in the Revolution than for his time in office.

After reading this, you might expect that I am a bit outraged by the Obama administration but I am not. I remember my Keynes, you don't cut government spending during a recession. You get through the recession and then you cut. Our continual participation in these wars is much more of a concern of mine. I am also quite a bit more upset with the tax cuts for billionaires which do nothing for our economy ... but that is a thought for another day.

After the recession is over, I agree, we should cut the hell out of spending. This seems to be something that everyone can agree upon. The question is how much and what to cut. My thoughts about spending are fairly simple. You spend now for savings in the long run. You spend on education on a federal level now because a decentralized department of education is a recipe for disaster and a poorly educated populace is far more expensive than an educated one. An educated populace creates innovation, jobs and votes responsibly. An uneducated populace is not innovative, is unemployed and commits more crime. Schools are cheaper and more productive than prisons.

The amount of money the US government is spending is scary even for a whacked-out liberal like myself. This is such a hot topic that some politicians are actually crossing the third rail and actually considering cutting defense spending and entitlements. It is about time don't you think? Everyone seems to want the government to cut spending but whenever anyone brings up something to cut, they freak out. Not my NPR, not NASA, not the EPA .... okay, I love all three of these. But these are tiny budget items. Even NASA is .1% of the federal budget. Nothing should be touched until our military spending is cut in half. Until then ... why the hell is anyone talking about cutting NPR funding?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It Appears That I Am a Fan of Tom McCarthy

I love learning that an artist that you like is somehow connected with another artist that you had no idea even knew each other. Like one day I learned that the singer Norah Jones was sitar player Ravi Shankar's daughter. I used to listen to his live album during lonely evenings when I was in college. Now I hum along to his daughter while relaxing with my wife to jazz in the evenings. It just blew my mind when I learned that they were related.

This happened to me today but in a different sense. I learned that an actor from one of my favorite shows, the writer of one of my favorite films and one of my favorite directors is all the same person: Tom McCarthy.

My love affair with McCarthy's film started when I saw The Station Agent on DVD. It is a small film about average people that is both profound and moving without being trite or boring. Quite a feat, right? A few years later I was in Manhattan with my wife and we were looking for a relaxing evening. The movie theater selection here in Vermont is abysmal so I always to try to catch something interesting while in NYC. We saw the poster for The Visitor and went to see it because it was the same director of the The Station Agent. Again, a great film. This week I saw Win Win ... loved it. They are usually about people who normally wouldn't meet thrown together by an uncomfortable situation.

Since he also wrote those three films, it is not surprising that he wrote the Pixar film, Up. The same theme applies here, two people thrown together who would normally never meet face a difficult situation and come out really caring for each other.

Today I heard him interviewed and I heard him mention his acting career. I was curious so I looked him up. I recognized him as the character Scott Templeton on the HBO series The Wire. The Wire is probably the best cop show ever made. Each season the series took on a different aspect of the city of Baltimore. First season was about the cops, second season the dock workers, third season the drug dealers, fourth season the schools and the fifth season the media. Tom McCarthy was only in the fifth season. He played a journalist from The Baltimore Sun that lied about, and even, invented his sources. Like everyone else on the show, he was superb.

So I guess it is official. I am a Tom McCarthy fan.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Shores of Tripoli

If you attend any "patriotic" events here is the States, you have heard the "Marine's Hymn." This is the song that starts with

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli ....

The "Halls of Montezuma" is obviously in reference to the Mexican-American War where the US took Texas from Mexico. But the reference to the "shores of Tripoli" has always been a mystery to me. Why the heck were the 18th and 19th century military involved with Libya? That sounds more like a modern headline than something that Jefferson had to deal with.

Apparently, this is in reference to one of our lesser known wars, the First Barbary War. Libya at the time didn't exist as a nation. Tripoli was loosely governed by the Ottoman Empire. The Barbary pirates (on the northern coast of Africa) were notorious for hijacking ships on the Mediterranean Sea. They demanded $225,000.00 ransom from President Jefferson in 1801, an annual fee that they expected as like a toll to use the Mediterranean. Prior to Jefferson's presidency we had been paying $83,000 which was still a lot of money at the time. The war lasted four years and the end results was that the US would pay $65,000.00 annually.

I put the word patriotic in quotes above because I challenge the current use of this word. All too often patriotism is tied to war and the military. I reject this. I find this to be sad and a little sickening. When I think of the things that I like about about the US ... our military history does not come to mind. What comes to mind is our spirit of independence and innovation. It would really please me if I went to a "patriotic" event and people were reading Whitman and Twain or singing Bob Dylan and Paul Simon songs. If only when we celebrated patriotism, we'd celebrate the inventiveness of Thomas Edison, Steve Wozniak, Woody Allen or Elias Howe. There are so many other things to celebrate about this country other than our military might.