Tuesday, July 31, 2007

This is the Culture of Death

In a post musing about his wedding vows, Andrew Sullivan links to a Virgina Postrel passage that neatly encapsulates the Culture of Death:

Contrary to what you may have heard, the only sort of character suffering builds is the ability to suffer--a useful ability in a world where suffering is the routine nature of life but not a virtue that makes the world a better place.

There is an awful lot of mischief wrapped up in that statement.

First, it's patently ridiculous for a Christian, whose Savior liberated the world with an act of extreme suffering. Which in pertinent to Sullivan's vow writing, as there is no other way God could have communicated the depth of His love for us. But in a world where suffering is not only avoided but eliminated, we will not know that love.

And if the cultural expectation is that one acts to eliminate, rather than endure, suffering, what does it mean to love somebody "in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health." Whaddya mean? There should be no "bad" -- there should be no "sickness." All good, all health, all the time! And if you're not, then make it so, or you're a genetic defective who never should have been born.

Second, "the ability to suffer" will always be pertinent so long as we aim to do difficult things. We have been living an illusion that we can have our cake without having to bake it, so we do things like think we can invade a country, overthrow their government, but not have to work to maintain it. We bring in illegal immigrants to do work we don't want to pay living wages for, and then are surprised when that starts to have some other bad effects. We think we can solve the global warming by maintaining our current habits but sending some folks a few bucks to plant some trees.

Anything worth doing is going to entail sacrifice. But we are allergic to sacrifice; we expect someone to magically make it go away. I tend to think the world would be a better place if we were either willing to endure the suffering necessary to stabilize Iraq, or realized it would be difficult and didn't invade in the first place. But we're Americans. Suffering is for other people. We can kick some dictator ass and not have to deal with a mess. It'll be taken care of.

Third, eliminating the things we call suffering now will not eliminate suffering, it will just have us define down what we mean by suffering. As Sullivan notes, "And suffering because you have an ugly face and want plastic surgery applies." It's our relative rather than absolute position that defines our happiness. The American standard of living has risen dramatically over the years, but folks sure don't seem much happier. Because I only have a 27" TV without cable, and most of my neighbors have plasma TVs with digital.

Ross Douthat points out that Ezra Klein referred to Down's Syndrome as "medically disastrous." As we eliminate more and more conditions, what is considered unbearable suffering will expand.

---

I am not morally judging people who have cosmetic surgery, nor am I advocating that those enduring trials forego treatment that would improve their lives for the sake of building up their suffering muscles.

But Postrel's passage, and Sullivan's application of it, go further than that -- we are creating a world where suffering can be eliminated; therefore, suffering is without value. We are imminentizing the secular eschaton.

This is a wicked path; it is the path that has led us to 1 million abortions a year, the war in Iraq, the near genetic cleansing of Down's Syndrome. It has led to an American public allergic to sacrifice, that cannot be marshalled to solve real problems like a broken health care system for poor people, or looming environmental armageddon. Nah, somebody else will take care of that stuff. But man, my fingers are tired from all this typing. I better go take something.

I hasten to add that the impulse behind this notion is not evil, and is in fact good. Alleviating suffering is what the Corporal Works of Mercy are all about, and what Jesuse spent a good amount of His time doing. But like almost anything else, when taken too far, it can become a false god.




Monday, July 30, 2007

Sports roundup


  • The Cardinals had to go and win three straight from the Brewers to create the illusion that they can contend, so they probably won't be sellers at tomorrow's trade deadline.

    With Jason Insringhousen having said he would excercise is veto right over any trade, I'm not sure the Cards had any valuable parts anyway, but it could have been useful.

  • The games themselves were very exciting, with the Cards overcoming two five run deficits.

    I'd say the Brewers may be in trouble, and I'm predicting the Cubs take the Central.

  • The Braves had nab Mark Teixeira. I can't recall the Braves making deadline deals during their run of dominance. I guess Fred McGriff counts. We'll see what this does.

  • The Celtics apparently going to try to win the title with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and nothing else. In the East it could work. Unless one of them gets hurt, which seems likely.

  • RIP Bill Walsh.

    As The Blind Side laid out, Walsh essentially ushered in modern football, and was the first of the "genius" coaches, with the 49ers being the first true "system" team. Other coaches like Lombardi, Landry, and Noll were more motivators and organizers, getting the players to perform at a high level. For Walsh, it was about the system. Even though they're very different, Bill Belichek is his logical successor.

  • Traning camp has started. Man, I miss football... And both the Rams and Eagles have reason for optimism.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Personal is Personal

It's been a while now, but John Dickerson posted an article making the case that a recent ad by John Edwards pointed to some of the Edwards family's tragedies, but that this was OK, since, "he has endured his son's death and his wife's illness, and that not only makes him a tough guy but gives him a sense of perspective about the value of life."

Elizabeth Edwards responded to the first claim; I'd like to discuss the second.

To take Dickerson's adjectives one at a time -- one doesn't because one has had bad experiences. Almost everyone has endured bad things, perhaps not as bad as the Edwardses, but I know of few people whose lives have not been touched somehow by untimely death or chronic disease. Are we thus all qualified to be president?

As for perspective, that depends. Perhaps having experienced the death of a son. Edwards would be determined as president to never make a decision that would lead to another family enduring the same pain. That sounds laudable, but could be irresponsible, since part of a president's job is to order young men and women into harm's way.

All enduring personal tragedies means is that you have endured personal tragedies. Some people emerge from them better people; some emerge bitter and with a victim mentality. Some are the same. What matters is how you handle it.

Which is why it's unfair to use it in a campaign. I have no reason to believe that the Edwards family has endured their tragedies with the utmost class and dignity, but what if they hadn't? If they wanted us to give them credit for their personal tragedies, would it be in bounds for the Obama or Clinton campaigns to question how the Edwards family dealt with them? Most of us would say no. The end result would be a game of one-upmanship game of who's had the most trying personal tragedies. Unless one subscribes to Scott Adams's theory of presidential luck, that's not what the presidential race should be about.

Dickerson points to McCain's use of his experience as a POW as precedent, but qualifies it with, "though without the obvious element that McCain's suffering was in service to his country." I think that's an understatement. McCain's story is powerful in part because he could have made things easier on himself bu acting less honorably, but didn't. He took the hard course, and behaved with obvious valor and courage. Dickerson wants us to give Edwards credit for just having had bad things happen to him. As John Kerry found out, even valor in military service can be called into question in a political campaign. But how can one question how one deals with the death of a son?

If Edwards has the toughness and perspective Dickerson claims for him, then he won't use his personal tragedies as a shortcut to demonstrate these qualities. And if he does, I hope we don't fall for it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why can't we have a nice, civil conversation about what a jerk you are?

Imagine I write a post about my experience with my car, which is breaking down, and how this illustrates how this make of car is unreliable.

In the course of my description I let out that I'm not particular about what gas I put in it, don't change the oil, don't keep up with maintenance, drive it hard, ride the brakes, ignore warning lights, etc.

To my shock and dismay, the comments revolve around my poor treatment of the car rather than the unreliability of that particular brand.

Undeterred, I note that most of these comments seem to be coming from "car guys," and try to turn the conversation to how difficult it is for people who don't know about cars to deal with "car guys."

-----

This seems to be going on in reference to the SAHD post I posted about earlier.

Not suprisingly, the male reaction to that post was mostly negative. One reader launched a series of posts on the matter, and seemed surprised that the episode didn't launch some interesting discussions, blamed it on the fact that it was men who were commenting, whom she discounted has not being able to deal with assertive women, and then was again dismayed that this did not bring about a fruitful discussion.

Here's some tips:

  • When something bad happens to you due to some actions under your control, and you blame a larger problem, people are going to be more interested in pointing out what you could have done differently than discussing the larger problem.
  • Discounting someone viewpoint because of their gender or other intrinsic quality is rareley a precursor to productive discussion.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Not this time...

Rob Vischer posts to MOJ a discussion of the proportional reasons for a pro-loife Catholic to support Fred Thompson:

Third, being wholeheartedly against the War in Iraq is not a proportionate reason for being pro-choice. As Archbishop Myers reminded us in the run up to the 2004 election, the Pope did not bind the conscience of Catholics to oppose the War in Iraq - he merely expressed his own prudential judgement on the question. Moreover, as the Archbishop points out, we must remember what we are balancing here - the lives of 1.3 million unborn children in America every year. Virtually no other modern policy issue - not taxes, welfare benefits, minimum wage, farm subsidies, the war - compares on that scale.

No sale this time.

6 years ago there were 1.3 million abortions a year. Twice we elected George W. Bush president and because of this issue, and now... there are 1.3 million abortions a year.

Changing this will require actual leadership, not just checking the right boxes. Thompson's past, and his squirrelly statements about it, calls into question his commitment on this issue. Will he lead the country into a pro-life direction? I don't see him being inclined to. It seems, like most politicians, he'd like to avoid the issue as much as possible. For me, that's not enough.

And the president's impact through his war and torture policies has been profound, and much greater than his impact on the abortion issue.

The Holy Father has not bound our consciences on the war in Iraq simply because he does not do so. But out moral judgement need not be limited to what the Holy Father binds our concsciences to. The Holy Father has also did not bind us to vote for Bush over Kerry in the last election.

The president's impact on war and torture policy has been much greater than his impact on both abortion policy and its prevalence. Given that, it seems clear to me that the former represent a proportional reason to support a pro-choice candidate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Case For Federalism...

Matt Yglesias asks what's so bad about nationalizing divisive cultural issues like abortion, gun control, and abortion.

Two terms of George W. Bush; that's what.

Progressives may think they benefit by nationalizing these issues, because national opinion polls show they would win on these issues.

The problem is that when an issue like this is nationalized, social conservatives are very motivated to vote in national elections, because it is the only legal outlet to make their vote count.

In the current legal environment, for someone like me whose first priority is meaningfully changing abortion policy, the only election that matters is the presidential election. Because abortion policy cannot change if Roe v Wade is not overturned, and Roe v. Wade will not be overturned if John Kerry is nominating the next two or three Supreme Court Justices.

Thus, the argument that for presidential elections at least, social conservatives should base their vote entirely on abortion is plausible. And some of us did. And we have seen the results.

By nationalizing these issues, progressives have helped create a political environment where their candidates for national office start with 40% of the vote highly motivated against them. This leaves them virtually no margin for error.

If they could convince themselves it's not such a big deal if some rectangular states ban partial birth abortion, they might be able to do some things that matter to people.

-----

While I'm here I must take issue with MY's caricature of the social conservative position on same sex marriage. I don't think anyone believes or believed that all families would break up the day after the first same sex couple got married.

Our position, which has not been refuted by experience, is that same sex marriage is another step in eroding what marriage means. These steps have included cultural acceptance of contraception, no-fault divorce, and many other things. That we got our back up about this particular step may reveal that opposition may be motivated partly by antipathy for gays, but does not invalidate the premise.

Bonds and Bud

Two of the more annoying tics of the sabermetric community are a reflexive dislike for Commissioner Bud Selig and a reflexive defensiveness of Barry Bonds.

Yes, I know it's a bit of a conflict of interest to have a former owner or a member of an owner's family in the commissioner's chair. And I don't care for interleague play, either.

But it is impossible to deny that major league baseball has boomed under his stewardship, and some of his innovations, like the wild card, have been great successes.

As for Barry Bonds, he undeniably has Hall of Fame talent, but to believe that he has not used performance enhancing drugs requires suspension of disbelief that would challenge the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. As statheads could tell you, Barry Bonds's late-career power surge is unprecedented. His career precious to that had shown him as a rare, though not singular, talent.

In any case, both tics are in full display in this piece by Joe Sheehan (the entire article is behind their pay-wall, but you can get the flavor from the opening except).

In a manner that can only be described as “grudging,” Bud Selig did what he should have done three months ago, ending discussion of whether he would attend Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the all-time home run mark with a press release and a flight to San Francisco. As is his wont, Selig put his personal feelings ahead of the game’s best interest, choosing to issue a release that neither honored Bonds nor the moment, and put the controversy that surrounds Bonds—his alleged use of performance-enhancing substances—front and center.

Hmm, would it be better for Selig to bury his head and pretend there's not a problem? That worked really well back in 1998. And what is in the "game's best interest" about a commissioner being there in person when a record is broken anyway? The fixation on this issue, like it matters a damn of some businessman is there when sports' most hallowed record is broken, makes me think there's some preemptive defensiveness going on.

Think about your memories of other records being broken -- Call Ripken passing Lou Gehrig, Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson passing Brock. Do any of those memories remotely involve the commissioner?

The truth is, Bonds's supporters know that there's a problem. Which is why they are so desperate for Selig's imprimatur.

I consider this to be a shame. While it’s an unpopular viewpoint, I stand by my argument that Barry Bonds has not failed a test for PEDs in the four years that MLB has had a program. His testimony before a grand jury—subsequently leaked illegally, and to his detriment—was that he did take substances that were identified later as steroids, but he was told at the time that they were not. His testimony has been interpreted as parsing by some, perjury by others, although statements before the same grand jury by others have been granted full faith and credit. That grand jury inspired two reporters to write a book about Bonds, sourced largely by the illegally-obtained testimony, as well as the accounts of people around Bonds, at least one of whom, ex-mistress Kimberly Bell, can comfortably be described as “scorned.”

The witnesses against Bonds would certainly have more credibility if they were model citizens. But guess what? This was a criminal conspiracy; therefore, the people who would have known about it and are therefore able to testify about it are.... criminals!

If a mob boss is brought down by an informer form his own organization, it doesn't make him any less a mob boss to point out his accuser's unsavory past.

Also, were the other statments that were granted "full faith and credit" as incredible as Bonds's? Sheehan writes "the same grand jury" as if that is the key factor in whether we should believe these statements or not.

Baseball now has a small underclass of players—real players, not anonymous minor leaguers or fringe guys—who have tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, been suspended for that use, and returned to play. In virtually every case, those players go about their business without anyone caring. They’re cheered at home for their good deeds, and ignored on the road. The Indians benefit from the bullpen work of Rafael Betancourt, by far their best reliever this season, and a big reason for their contending status. He’s not reviled in Detroit or Minnesota as a steroid user, not booed and forced to endure the taunts of “Cheater!” or worse. No one cares. The same can be said for Juan Rincon, who is essentially the Twins’ version of Betancourt.

Need more evidence that the game is more than willing to forgive and forget? Ryan Franklin tested positive in 2005, serving a 10-game suspension for his guilt. Last month, the Cardinals signed him to a two-year contract worth $5 million. Last winter, the Mets Guillermo Mota was suspended for the first 50 games of 2007 off a positive test; a month later, the Mets signed him to a two-year contract for, again, $5 million.

Hmmm -- none of these players is challenging any of baseball's most sacred records. Nobody is calling on the commissioner to fly out and give his stamp of approval to these players' accomplishments.

These players also fit the profile of having received actual sanctions for their abuse. They also do not have a mountain of accomplishments that are now suspect that we are being asked to honor.

And let's also not forget that Mark McGwire, hitter of 580 home runs, was passed over in his first bid for Hall of Fame induction. In modern times, it is unprecedented that someone with his accomplishments would be passed over. Sammy Sosa continues to climb the home run charts with hardly any attention.

Barry Bonds is probably the greatest baseball player of his generation, with or without the help. Bud Selig has his faults, but has been an able steward of baseball for the past dozen years.

-----

In the last edition of the Baseball Abstract, Bill James laid out what seemed to me to be a somewhat convincing case for reasonable doubt over whether Pete Rose bet on baseball.

A year or so later, ESPN televised a "trial" of Pete Rose, with Alan Dershowitz as the prosecutor. The defense, led by the late Johnnue Cochran called James as a witness, and then Deshowitz carved him up in cross-examination.

I suspect that if Sheehan were subject to similar cross-examination of his defense of Bonds, the results would be similar.



UPDATE: For a look at Bonds without blinders, check out this interview with Jeff Pearlman, who wrote a book on Bonds.

On the "there's no evidence that Barry ever used" line, Pearlman says:

I read writers like Bill Rhoden and Dave Zirin--guys I respect--and I just don't understand what the hell they're doing. They maintain there's no proof that Bonds used, so how can we condemn him? If we used that mode of thinking in day-to-day life, there'd be no need for juries. You either catch a person in the act of committing a crime or he's innocent. Factually--and I mean, 100% factually--Bonds used, and the evidence is overwhelming. Game of Shadows, my book, his ties to Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, the expansion (impossible, unless he used HGH or suffers from Acromegaly) of his skull, a former teammlate like Jay Canizaro telling me how Anderson said he can design a steroid cocktail for him that would be just like Barry's, so on and so on. Every time someone writes that there's no "proof," he/she is gifting the designers of masking agents. If we reward and praise the cheaters in sports, what are we saying to the kids who follow the games? What are we saying about decency and integrity?


Celebreate Barry if you want to, but let's be clear about what you're celebrating.

How Things Must Look

Headline for an article I saw today on Google News:

Iran still meddling in Iraq, U.S. says

Imagine what it would be like to be an Arab in the Middle East and see a headline like that. The United States is on the other side of the world, overthrew the Iraqi government via a military invasion, unleashing mass chaos such that it has recently "surged" thousands of troops to try to contain.

Iran is their closest neighbor and is attmepting to influence who winse this struggle for power.

And the US has the gall to say Iran is "meddling?"

Imagine how we might react to this headline:

US still meddling in Mexico; Iran says

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sullivanism Watch...


Christainism Watch



"I had one letter from a vicar in England -- this is the difference -- saying would I please not put Christmas trees at Hogwarts as it was clearly a pagan society. Meanwhile, I'm having death threats when I'm on tour in America," - J.K. Rowling on the reception given the Harry Potter books.


Er, is this a new dangerous fusion of faith and politics, or just Christians doing things that Sullivan doesn't like?

Brazen Careerist and the Myth of Gender Equality...

Penelope Trunk, writer of the Brazen Careerist blog, is having trouble in her marriage. How do I know this? Because she has blogged about it.

But that's not the most interesting part. The intersting part is the comments. They seem to consist of:

  • People telling her it might not be in the best interests of the marriage she calims she wants to save to do things like blog the contents of her mediation sessions.

    Trunk responded that this is perfectly OK because her husband had no problem with her writing about their sex life for her Master's thesis 15 years ago, without saying that he has specifically approved these revelations.

  • Accusations that she is only writing about this to drive up her hit counts.

  • A lot of "Wow, thank you so much for your bravery and honesty in opening yourself up like that..."


It's this last one that I find a bit hard to swallow.

Imagine a man running a blog called something like "Brazen Careerist," whose SAHM wife wants to divorce him. He blogs about it, including:

  • Divulging details about mediation sessions without making it clear that he had his wife’s permission to do so.
  • Having no idea that his wife wanted a divorce.
  • Not knowing the reasons why his wife wanted said divorce.
  • Dropping another mention of how great his career is going, and that he mentioned this to the mediator.
  • Refer to how her career “sort of stalled.”
  • Mention how much better she is at details than he is, and that she’s good at making lunch boxes, whereas the kid rejects his.

    OK — I’ll tell you how this one would play out — the husband would be accused of passive aggressively screwing up the lunches on purpose so that it would be his wife’s responsibility, like everyhing else…

  • Refers to himself as the “career expert in the household” and how he thinks this makes him “ten steps ahead” of his wife.
  • Mentions that he “delegated” finding a therapist to her because he is too busy blogging


I can think of a few words women would use to describe such a man, and "brave" and "honest" aren't among them.

The interesting thing is that it looks like Ms. Strunk is having to learn the same lessons an entire generation of men have had to learn -- if your spouse is devoting their life to household work, they need you to honor and respect the work that they are doing.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Vacationing for health

Continuing the conversation about vacation policy, Tim Lee writes:

No seriously. Recruiting talented employees is difficult, and getting them to be productive is harder. So employers collectively have billions of dollars riding on finding the optimal vacation policy for their firms. The armchair CEOs of the blogosphere, in contrast, just think it would be neat if people got more vacations. Who do you think is more likely to be right?

<snip>

If it were really true that giving employees more vacation days would make them produce more over the course of the year, that would be a double bonus: it would make it easier to recruit employees and it would cause them to produce more stuff. Employers would be stupid not to do it.

First, are we so sure that the market is really such a well-oiled machine that we are confident that vacation policies it has come up with are optimal? Or, like everthing else, is it subject to inertia, an attitude of, "I only had 2 weeks of vacation when I made my way through the ranks, and I worked 80 hour weeks, and doggone it these young whippersnappers can get by with just 2 weeks of vacation as well." Might there be other factors contributing to these policies besides what is strictly optimal? If so, might it take a little nudge from the government to move them along?

Second, obviously it would be ridiculous to assert that a worker's absolute productivity would increase with more time off, which is why only Reed and Yglesias's strawmen made such an argument. Fortunately, that's not necessary for this to be a good policy.

The assertion is that the marginal productivity of the last week or two of a worker's time is less than her absolute productivity divided by a week or two.

If that is the case, then in order for employers to gain by offering increased vacation, they would need to lower salaries, but they would not need to lower them by the same percentage as the additional vacation days represent. They would just need to lower them enough to cover the marginal productivity, which is less.

Except for one thing -- in order to maintain the same level of productivity, employers would have to hire additional workers. And there are transactional costs to that. In essence, increasing vacation makes sense if

marginal productivity of vacation time <

reduction in salary worker will accept for additional vacation

+ transactional cost to add marginal productivity.

Which is yet another negative impact of linking health care to employment. From an employer's perspective, it is cheaper to have fewer employees working more hours than to have more employees working fewer hours, because they have to pay for the health care benefits for each additional employee.


Again, the current health care regime proves to be a drag on the economy.

How Blogging is like IT work

Andrew Sullivan writes about the tension between blogging and more permanent writing:

The kind of brain activity that permits one to post two dozen items a day, keep track of countless more, and surf endless online reports and ideas and spats, is not conducive to also producing a long or reflective or deep work of philosophy or fiction or history or poetry. Even if you find the time, your mind cannot adjust that quickly.

A typical IT worker has two activities that compete for his time and attention:

  • Troubleshooting/Firefighting
  • Design, development of longer term solutions

If you're familiar with Stephen Covey's work, you know that the second set is "quadrant 2" activities, whereas the first bullet point is in quadrant 1 or 3. This presents a few problems.

The problem is that a lot of the things we tell ourselves are in quadrant 1 are really in quadrant 3. The IT and business culture rewards those who lead the troubleshooting/firefighting efforts. Those who continue their design and development while others are firefighting are considered poor team players. The rewards for firefighting are real and immediate. The rewards for development work are not.

On a slightly darker note, a culture where everyone jumps in to help out on the latest fire is a culture where nobody is accountable for their design or development deliverables, because there's always the excuse of some fire coming up that required their attention, so they "didn't quite get" to completing the design, and schedules slip.

The other problem is that although these activities require different types of "brain activity," it is typically the same people who are good at one that are good at the other. In part this is because nobody knows a system like the person who designed it, but it is also because the same skills -- analytical ability, focus, and determination -- are transferable to both problem areas.

The final problem is that a lot of the effort of deign and development is loading to contextual information in your mind. Once there, you can be "in the zone" and make leaps of progress without what seems to be a large effort. But this requires long blocks of time.

But office life isn't always geared toward that. Your coworker will ask for help. The department secretary will ask for the serial number from your PC for the third time in a month. Your spouse will call for help in resolving some child care issue. You'll be reminded to fill out your timesheet. A vendor will call. etc.

Eventually, you get discouraged, and even when there seems to be a block of time, you don't work on the Quadrant 2 stuff, since you know you'll only get interrupted. Hello, Quadrant 4!

What to do about it?

Well for one, those who are good at context switching will be very valuable. Those who can jump back and forth between development work and troubleshooting without getting discouraged or dropping the ball are and will continue to be very valuable. I'm not sure if this is a skill that can be developed or a natural talent.

Second, we need to defend the quadrant 2 activities, and sell other stakeholders on the idea that allowing us some time to focus on them is in their best interests. It's hard for people to understand how disruptive their one little question can be. They don't realize that they're one of ten people with one little question.

This can be a hard pill to swallow. Closing yourself in your office while everyone's running around chasing a problem doesn't initially seem very "customer-focused." But it can be the best way to serve them, and prevent future fires.

Finally, it usually takes a little bit of analysis to triage between Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 3 requests. By the time that's done, the damage for the interruption has already been met, and you may as well go ahead and respond to the request regardless of its importance. Which is why value-added gatekeepers are necessary.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Procedural predictability

Just once, on a show like CSI or Law & Order, I think it would be fun if the first guy the cops picked up was the actual perpetrator, and he was convicted in a straghtforward trial, and the whole thing wrapped up in about 20 minutes, so they had to put on another story in the second half hour.

As it is now, you know the first suspect won't end up being guilty, you know that there will be some problem with the key evidence/witness required to convict, Jack McCoy will get indignant that the judge would throw it up and have to huddle with his team.

By the way, here's your cast for every procedural cop show ever, with thanks to John:

  • The married or widowed white guy with the complicated back-story: Usually the leader of the group. Each crime story is especially poignant because it calls back to his family or his painful past. Criminals who know this and try to exploit it, but after a misstep or two, he always pulls himself together. (Eliot Stabler on L&O SVU, Horatio Cane on CSI:Miami, Hodge on Criminal Minds, Gary Sinise on CSI:NY, Jack on Without A Trace)
  • The tough as nails white chick. She might not have a great personal life, but that isn't going to stop her from kicking ass. In fact, she usually works a ton of hours to avoid her personal life, to the point where against her better judgement she gets into a relationship with a coworker. (Perhaps to support the above white guy when a case hits too close to home). Criminals think they can scare or intimidate her, and quickly discover they cannot. (Emily Proctor on CSI:Miami, Catherine on CSI, Olivia on L&O:SVU, the woman with the long curly hair on CSI:NY, Poppy Montgomery on Without A Trace)
  • The Latino or black guy from the 'hood: This guy used to run with the wrong crowd, but now he's seen the error of his ways and has joined the Good Guys. He uses his connections to find unconventional ways to solve crimes. Occasionally, he'll get a little too friendly with his old friends and get himself into trouble. (Ice-T on L&O:SVU, the black guy on Criminal Minds, Warrick on CSI)
  • Master of the obvious chief: When the cops describe the mountain of evidence against a perp, he'll say, "OK -- go pick him up." Occasionally, he'll try to pull the white guy off a case he's too involved with, tell the tough as nails chick to take some time off, or advise the guy from the 'hood to stay away from his friends, to no avail. (every L&O police chief, Fred Thompson)
  • Token/cipher: This character fills in whichever demographic niche isn't taken by the guy from the 'hood. Usually assigned to the "B" storyline, she'll just straightforwardly follow the evidence.
  • The pain in the ass assistant DA: She can't keep the perp in custody, flubs the important evidence, and rakes the cops over the coals for little procedural errors. Once a season, she's allowed to be the hero by discovering some legal loophole to get the confession/warrant the cops need.
  • The nerd/quiet guy(Optional):When everyone else is running around, this character calmly provides the key piece of information. (Grissom on CSI, Reed on Criminal Minds, psychologist on L&O SVU)
  • Wisecracking coroner

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why just women?

Ross Douthat highlights Dana Goldstein's comments on Obama's remarks to Planned Parenthood.

One interesting note -- Goldstein seems to think it's a bad thing that Obama stresses family friendly policies that enable choice over red-meat issues like abortion.

But what women actually want, the polls suggest, is a more family-friendly system, which makes it easier for them to work part-time or not at all while their children are young. If Republicans were smart, they would find a package of reforms tailored to precisely that desire: For instance, they could advance a significant Ponnuru-style (or Cesar Conda-style) tax credit for families with children; a health care plan that severs health insurance from employment, so women don't feel bound to jobs they dislike; and maybe even a package of tuition credits for women (or men!) looking to re-train and re-enter the workforce after staying at home for a few years.

Bold emphasis added.

I submit that it not just women who are unsatisfied by the choice between complete withdrawal from the workforce and full time work.

Generalizing from my own experience, I would be much happier in an arrangement where my wife and I each worked 25-30 hours, and equitably shared in the child-raising. I suspect she would be much happier as well.

But that is not an option for us, especially with one child having a chronic disease. That mandates health insurance, which effectively mandates that one of us work full time. Since the market for my skills is more attractive than the market for my wife skills, that means I work a 40 hour a week job.

The easy way to exploit this is to choose sides in the Mommy Wars or Culture Wars, etc. Families with stay at home parents are unhappy because dual income families lead a lifestyle it is impossible to keep up with on one income. Families with two incomes are unhappy because those with stay at home parents set unrealistic standard for parenting.

But that isn't getting us anywhere.

If a candidate like Obama can help create true freedom for families to find solutions to the problems parenting creates, he'll win my vote, and I think a lot of other votes, too.

Off topic

Getting a few quick items off my chest, and testing out some stuff I'm doing with the forum links and RSS feeds...

  • Well, I did my part. Didn't notice the bus or trains any more crowded than usual, though.

    While I'm here -- I notice that pretty much every Metro bus has wood paneling. Exactly who is this designed to fool? Does anybody think that actual wood is being used to put up little walls in a city bus?

    Oops -- just realized I was supposed to ride a motorcycle or scooter, not take public transit. Never mind, then.

  • This is the type of thing that drives people nuts about Apple. They can't say that MS's use of the Maximize button is a different but valid interpretation of what that button should do. No -- Microsoft is objectively wrong! How could anyone not think the Maximize button should just size to content! It's absurd.

  • Rick Garnett says some things that need to be said about the coverage of the sex abuse settlement. Of course, it's hard to say these things without sounding like you're making excuses for abusive priests or the diocesan officials that covered for them. But it does seem that a lot of the coverage (and the lawsuits) are not purely motivated by compassion for the victims.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Introducing a new term...

Sullivanism.

If pressed, I will define Sullivanism as pretending that a position based on personal taste or distaste is based on principles. But really, I'll just apply this label to anything Andrew Sullivan writes that I disagree with.


If you'll remember, Sullivan defined Christianist as follows:

You will notice no mention of terrorism or violence. My use of the term Christianist similarly and simply describes those who believe that the source of any political system should be Christian revelation, rather than the secular principles of the Enlightenment and the American constitution..


Right, it's not a smear; it's not meant to linke Christians with terrorism; it's a description of a modern notion about the fusion of faith and politics. Right.

But then, Sullivan relates the story of a Christian who kiled a gay man because he believed homosexuality was evil under the title of "Christianist terror?

Hmm -- did the perpetrator beat his victim with a rolled up copy of First Things? Has he offered any opinions on the proper role of religion in politics?

Not that I could see. But he's a Christian. And he did something Sullivan (and most people, including myself) don't like. So he gets the label.

Can we therefore please stop pretending that "Christianism" is a neologism designed to describe a novel development in religious political life, and admit that it's nothing more than a smear?

To drive home the smear, Sullivan ends the post with the query, "And this is different from Islamist barbarism how, exactly?"

I offered an answer, as did a reader.

In response, Sullivan admits that the Christianist threat is "nowhere near" the threat of Islamism. Gee, that might explain why "the conservative media" failed to highlight it to Sullivan's satisfaction.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I wrote this post on a vacation day...

Interesting ongoing discussion on whether the US should adopt European-style vacation policies.

Tim Lee and Matt Yglesias have come out against it, while Ezra Klein has argued for it.

Lee writes:

It seems to me that basic economic suggests that in the long run, at least, if people work 5 percent fewer hours they’ll produce 5 percent less stuff. And if a worker is producing 5 percent less stuff, he’s going to receive (again, on average and in the long) 5 percent lower wages. Which means that regardless of what the law says, if you mandate that an employer provide 12 extra vacation days, that’s going to mean that in the long run, employees’ wages will be 5 percent lower than they otherwise would have been.


Lee goes on to list "several plausible answers to this argument," but one that he doesn't is that it is doubtful that the marginal value of the last 5% of a knowledge worker's time spent working is equal to 5% of her total value. In other words, that workers would not respond to increased vacation by compressing more productivity into their working days, and that the current vacation schedule is optimal.

Companies offer vacation as a benefit to lure workers, yes, but also in recognition that people need breaks in order to be maximally productive. Is the current two or three week norm the magic number? Europe seems to have arrived at a different conclusion. My suspicion is it varies. For some professions and individuals, the European model yields the maximum productivity. For other, the optimal amount of vacation may be zero.

Lee cites the example of the lawyer working 80 hour weeks. But the associate working 80 hour weeks isn't doing so just to be more productive; she is doing so to demonstrate dedication to the company.

The real problem is the cultural association of productivity with hours worked. And it's going to take more than mandated vacation to change that.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mised opportunities...

In the latest Kaus-Wright diavlog on Bloggingheads, I think each participant let his adversary get the better of an exchange, when there were better arguments that could have been made.

First, Kaus lets Wright frame the issue of profiling Muslims as "Won't this increase Muslim resentment and lead to more terror attacks?"

This argument almost refutes itself. If there's a group of people who are so touchy that they would blow stuff up if they get a little extra attention, then it seems that it would be prudent to keep an eye on them.

The expected response is that this is a universal reaction to being singled out by race, not something particular to Muslims.

My experience in being part of targeted groups is somewhat limited, but I notice that this argument is not deployed in opposing profiling any other group. If anti-abortion or ecoterrorists were subjected to similar scrutiny, anyone opposing it on the basis that it could anger them more and produce more attacks would be laughed out of the room. Would anybody question the Plame investigation by saying that investigating the Bush Administration will only make them mad and apt to do more destructive things? But in this case, Wright seems to think it's an argument-ender.

This does seem to smack of some cultural superiority. The other groups are assumed to have some moral agency, but not Muslims. They are mindless reactors to American policies.

This has long been a problem I've had with Wright's work. Recent events may have vindicated him that bombs are not the way to solve Islamic terrorism, but I don't think cowering in fear is, either.

I am open to arguments that profiling is ineffective. I am open to arguments that it goes against our principles. But this argument that we shouldn't do this because it will only enrage the other side is an invitation to define our relationship with Muslims in terms of fear. One which we do not accept in any other context.

---

Later, Wright lets Kaus frame the torture debate in terms of the tired "ticking time bomb" scenario. He claims to oppose torture just like Wright and John McCain do, but seems quite eager to move the discussion to this. And that if we could countenance the use of torture in the ticking time bomb scenario but want to ban torture are "hypocrites."

Well, first of all, I'm not convinced that torture is the correct course of action even in the ticking time bomb scenario. I don't know that John McCain or Bob Wright think it is either, but recognize that "no" is not a politically viable answer to the question of whether to torture in that case.

Secondly, As I've said before, if the possibility of criminal sanctions enter at all into whether to torture someone, then you're not really in a "ticking time bomb" scenario. McCain's caveat isn't an admission that torture is the way to go so much as a statement that a law against torture would not prevent torture if people really thought it was the only way to save the world. A speeding law isn't going to prevent me from rushing a dying family member to the hospital.

Thirdly, immediately turning the discussion to the "ticking time bomb" scenario, which has not happened, when there have apparently been many cases of torture for more mundane reasons betrays some sympathy for torture. Similar to immediately turning discussions of abortion to saving the life of the mother. Yes, there may be hard cases. We can handle them as they come up.

Speaking of degree of difficulty....

This ought to be Kip Wells's last start, unless LaRussa is trying to win a division while carrying a 20 game loser.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I'm Tony La Russa, and you're not

Via Jeff Gordon, Rob Neyer nicely captures why, even with last year's World Series win, Tony La Russa will never be a beloved figure in St. Louis.


As I’ve said many times, I like Tony La Russa. If there’s a Tony La Russa fan club, tell me where to sign up. When he’s elected to the Hall of Fame, I’ll be leading the cheers. But sometimes he’ll drive you absolutely nuts, because sometimes he apparently feels compelled to prove . . . well, to prove that he’s not only smart, but smarter than every manager who’s come before him


There is no doubt in my mind that Tony La Russa wanted nothing more than to win last night's game, and is as disappointed as anyone that the NL lost.

But still, it seems like he often wants to add a degree of difficulty to things. If he sees two paths to victory, one which is through the brute force superior talent of his players, and the other is some clever managerial trick, La Russa will go for the latter.

I imagine his dream scenario for the end game went something like this:

  • The NL ties the game in the 9th inning.
  • The NL (using three different pitchers) shuts out the AL in the top of the 10th.
  • The AL brings in a lefty for the bottom of the 10th.
  • LaRussa pinch hits Pujols for a left handed NL player to lead off the 10th. He hits a double, and the NL loads the bases, but don't score.
  • Pujols goes in to play some odd position, like right field.
  • Pujols makes a tough play in right field that someone like Dimitri Young would not be able to make.
  • Pujols hits a home in the 11th to win the game for the NL, and is named MVP.
  • Everyone lauds La Russa for saving Pujols for the extra innings


Albert Pujols isn't an All Star because of his defensive versatility. He's an All Star because he's been the best hitter in the National League for the last five years. He may be able to play a number of positions, but his best one is the batter's box.

There were other ways to take advantage of Pujols's versatility without keeping him on the bench. He could have pinch hit and gone in to play first base. Then, if someone like Dimitri Young needed to play defense, Pujols could move to the other position.

But that would be too orthodox. And where's the glory in that?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can we just enjoy the All Star game?

or why I want to punch the statheads in the nose sometimes.

When I was growing up, the statheads loved to criticize the fans for electing guys like Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Ryne Sandberg, and Carloton Fisk to the All-Star Game, even though they might be past their prime and not have put up the best numbers at their position that particular year. They would sneer at this year's elections of Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds. But, the fans did elect Prince Fielder over more established first basemen like Albert Pujold and Derrick Lee, so maybe we've learned.

No, that's not good enough, because now we get arcticles like this lecturing us that half a season is really too small a sample size th evaluate players.

Ok -- I'll make a deal with the statheads -- you stop lecturing us about how we've got it all wrong with our selections, and we won't use All Star selections as the basis for Hall of Fame arguments. Ok? Then can we elect the players we like, and enjoy the game? That is what the All Star game is for, right? To be an exhibition game the fans enjoy watching?

Yes, yes, I know that half a season isn't long enough to evaluate a ballplayer, and that there have been some players for whom their All Star selection represented the lone highlight of their careers. I don't care. That's part of the charm. (As I type this, Carl Crawford just took one into the RF stands). Quit trying to ruin everyone else's fun.

Dept. of Low Expectations...

John Podoretz on Fred Thompson's pro-life record, in repsonse to Ramesh Ponnuru

Are you expecting Thompson to be more pro-life than Bush -- politically, I mean, not philosophically?

Yes, how could we pro-lifers possibly expect more than what George W. Bush has done for the pro-life cause in the last 8 years? I mean, there's the partial birth abortion ban, and his not-complete cave-in on embryo-destructive research, and.. and..

George W. Bush has been president for 8 years. There are still 40 million abortions a year. Cultural accpetance of abortion continues apace. So, yeah, I don't consider George W. Bush to be the gold standard for pro-life presidential candidates.

My questions

Andrew Sullivan passes on the following two questions from David Boaz for "Republican Christianists"

1. Would you support a presidential candidate who is divorced, has estranged relations with his children, never sees his grandchildren, rarely attends church, strongly opposes a law to ban gays from teaching school, and as governor signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law?

2. Would you support him if you knew his name was Ronald Reagan?

According to the apparent script, we're supposed to answer "No" to the first question, "Yes" to the second question, and then Boaz and Sullivan can shout "Gotcha!" because they've proven.... well, I'm not sure what they think they proved.

That "Christianists" are willing to look past personal sins to achieve their policy goals? Sure. I'm not sure why that's a sin. That "Christianists" are willing to forgive past sins and policy disagreements if they feel the candidate has had a change of heart? Again, I'm not sure that's such a terrible thing.

If we were in the middle of the Clinton impeachment, when people were saying that Clinton's private sins should disqualify him from the presidency, Sullivan and Boaz might have a point.

But we're not. We're a year out from the conventions, and we're looking for a candidate. A candidate like Reagan, circa 1979, might not be our first choice. But if he were the nominee, he would enjoy tremendous support. But right now, the idea is to nominate a candidate who we beleive will support our causes as much as possible. That desire is not incompatible with general election support for a candidate like the 1980 Ronald Reagan, and I don't think Reagan did anything in office to demonstrate that supporting him was a mistake.

---

Of course, Sullivan isn't interested in having a debate; he's interested in gotcha games. If "Christianists" support a candidate like Fred Thompson in spite of his womanizing past, that just demonstrates how unprincipled we are. If we don't, then we're prudes. If we reject Romney for being a Mormon, then we're imposing religious tests and are bigoted. If we don't, then we're again unprincipled, and willing to accept a non-Christian for crass policy gains.

Go ahead and have your fun; we'll be busy actually trying to get stuff done.

---


Incidentally, I should note that I could also be described as one who "strongly opposes a law to ban gays from teaching school" So this would be far from a disqualifying trait for me.

Turning the timetables...

It seems like the Administration's answer to all calls to change Iraq policy is that there will be no shift until Genreal Petraeus's report in September.

Hmm -- that kind of sounds to me like a "specific timeline." And I seem to remember in 2004, that those were Very Bad Things, since they would broadcast our intentions to our enemies, to the point where even Democratic candidates avoided mentioning timelines for fear of being exposed as igonorant in military matters.

But apparently now, it's OK to broadcast to the world that we're going to continue our current course until Septemeber, and not a day sooner.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Urbanism, Transit, and Control.

Matt Yglesias writes:

The urbanist proposal isn't "hey, jerks, why don't you all move to dense downtowns." Rather, the proposal is something like "why don't we impose carbon taxes so that things like driving long distances and heating or cooling large detached structures are priced in accordance with their social cost? Why don't we stop having the federal government heavily subsidize driving cars as the preferred mode of transportation? Why don't we have more areas that allow for high-density zoning, thus reducing the cost of urban housing?" It's not that we urbanists are unaware that many people live in low density areas because its cheaper, it's precisely that we are aware of this fact that makes us believe that the "traditional unipolar downtown" could make a comeback.


Except...

I have been without a car for the past 6 months, and have been using public transit for commuting. I get discounted monthly transit passes through my employer, for $40 a month. If I commute 20 times a month, that works out to a little more than a dollar a ride. But St. Louis Metro is subsidized at $2.46 per rider, and are bragging about how low this is! So I'm paying less than a third of the total cost of my transportation. And we think drivers are getting a bad deal?

It's not about cost anyway; it's about control. Metro could offer universal free service, and gas could be $4.00 a gallon, and the buses would still be empty and the highways would be jammed. As my post about airlines vs. interstate driving mentioned, that's a big difference maker. If I'm driving and I run 5 minutes late getting out the door, I get to work 5 minutes later. If I'm taking the bus, I get to work half an hour later.

In the six months I have been commuting the following have ocurred:

  • I have been in a quite frightening accident caused by a driver falling asleep.
  • On separate occasions, I lost a wallet of 40 CDs and an MP3 player.
  • A bus took an incorrect route; I missed it and had to wait for the next one a half hour later.
  • That same week, the bus apparently never came, again pushing me back half an hour.
  • I had started doing this when there was an express bus service serving my office every 10 minutes on three differnt routes. One, then another of these routes was re-routed, so not it is only a 30 minute service.


I'm not trying to point fingers at Metro, and some of these things are my own damn fault. But it's a consequence of surrending control of part of my life to an organization that has other priorities ahead of my personal convenience. I leave my lunch in the car, and I have to walk out and go get it. I leave it on a bus or train, and I either go hungry or have to shell out for a meal.

So if Yglesias and others think they're going to get people to abandon their cars and move to the cities by making them pay carbon taxes, they're dreaming.

And that's just one aspect -- in city living there are a lot more spheres of life that are impacted by others than in the suburbs. If my suburban neighbor throws a party, I might need to weave around some extra parked cars on my way home. If an urban neighbor throws a party, I might not sleep that night. Et cetera.

There's got to be a carrot to go with the stick. There's reasons people moved to the suburbs, and not all of them are bad. Shaming and taxing us into moving back to the cities, rather than addressing those reasons, isn't going to get the job done.

The Consistency Thing...

Again, I don't know how I feel about the commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence , but I have one more thought.

A lot of commentators are saying that if one supported Bill Clinton being impeached for perjury about his sex life, then he is bound to be outraged at the commutation of Scooter Libby for perjury on a matter of national security.

I'm not convinced.

My support for the Clinton impeachment (such as it was) wasn't so much about wanting to punish Bill Clinton as it was not wanting someone to continue as president after committing such an act. I had no desire for Bill Clinton to go to jail for it.

But Scooter Libby is gone, had to go through a trial, and was convicted. His career in public service is over. That's enough for me.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Could anyone "pass"

It's amusing to me that every campaign (or not-yet-campaigns like Fred Thompons's) feel the need to issue press releases with their position on the Libby commutation. Predictably, this has fallen on party lines -- the Democrats have said it's wrong, the Republicans have said it right.

It would be impressive if one candidate had the humility and courage to admit he didn't know enough about the case to say one way or the other whether it was the right thing to do.

As it is, the event is kind of like a Rorschach test -- the reactions tell more about the people reacting than the event itself.