Wednesday, 16 April 2014

(弱肉強食) Weak Meat, Strong Eat

There is a short aphorism that the strong eat, the weak are meat (弱肉強食 - "ruo rou, qiang shi").  There are I think variants of this theme across the world, but this particular version arises in Asia.

I was reminded of the saying when I came across this truly disheartening story that recently has made the news in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The long on the short of the story is that a 15 year old student who allegedly had been the chronic victim of various acts of bullying in his classroom, decided to try to defend himself.  The boy used an iPad to record an incident, and present the recording to his parents.

In the approximately six minutes recorded, the student is threatened and humiliated by multiple classmates, all the while as his teacher is standing right next to him, attempting to help with some maths questions.  

One might think that the school principal, when shown the evidence, would take action to punish the other kids, if not for the threats against the victim, then for the vulgarity and disrespect shown the teacher.

One would be wrong.

Apparently, the principal:

1) Ordered the student to erase the recording
2) Telephoned the police and had the victim arrested for making a "wiretap."

The craziness did not end there - a judge actually convicted the victim for disorderly conduct.

How on earth did we arrive at such a point?

I remember high school, despite the more than 25 years that have passed; I remember junior high school (now called "middle school") as an even more "lord of the flies" sort of place.  Of course there was bullying.  The "law of the playground" (as described by Homer Simpson) was more or less in effect.  But even then, this sort of obvious, in your face type of attack would not have been tolerated.

Why do we put up with it?  Why do those in authority simply refuse to do anything to help?  My sister is a school teacher, so I am sympathetic up to a point that the teachers are in many cases helpless - after all, the teachers cannot be all places at all times.  And I suspect in many instances, they fear retribution - here in Paris, some weeks ago, a teacher who punished a miscreant was savagely beaten as the other students sat and watched - either from the perpetrator, or by the parents or worse, lawyers who argue that it's not "fair" to Johnny to punish him for his misbehaviour.

My own son some years back in pre-school was the target of another boy who searched through the classroom until he found a target - in this case my then four year old son - who would neither fight back nor alert the teacher.  My wife waited at the edge of the playground one day to confirm that the little brat indeed was guilty, and when we went to the teacher and principal, neither seemed to know a thing, and the principal started in with a bunch of flapdoodle about "dialog" and the like.

Needless to say, she quickly changed her tune and took action to separate the problem when we suggested that she was now aware of the problem, and that we intended to name her personally should anything happen to our son.

Yes - it took threats to get results.  And we lived in one of the "best" school districts in the state.

Right now, "bullying" has reached an almost hysterical status, with virtually every conflict of every stripe being called "bullying."  It's a bit like how Orwell observed that the word "fascist" had been so abused and mis-applied that it simply did not mean anything specific any longer: (f)ascism "has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable."  

The abuse, however, of course doesn't mean that existentially fascist behaviour had ceased to exist, nor does it now mean that there are not real incidents of bullying, and this case in Pennsylvania illustrates it perfectly.  The kids who have terrorised the boy are certainly bullying him, the school is likely bullying the teacher, making it impossible for her to control her classroom, and the authorities - the principal, the police, and the idiot judge - are bullying all those who are trying to obey the rules into not making waves.

It's unacceptable.

Some have commented that the school's hands are tied - that there is nothing to be done with bullies.  Nonsense.  Those kids should be expelled.

The principal who allowed this to happen should be fired.

The judge who handed down the sentence should be recalled.

The rules are in place precisely to protect the weak from the strong.  THAT is why we have laws; it's why we have police.  It's why we have prisons.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fight the Power

Sometimes, You've Just Got To Say
It may surprise many of my friends, especially those who have only known me since adulthood, that when I was younger, I had a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak.  These days, perhaps as a reaction to living for many years in the rather nauseatingly self-righteous bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, I have been associated with a rather reactionary personna. Now, I've never thought myself to be particularly conformist, and to those who knew me as a child, my political migration would, I think, be seen as unsurprising.

Simply put, I find "groupthink" and unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy just unappealing.  (It is on full display right now in the sort of "militant tolerance" as the heretic ex-CEO of Mozilla is boiled in oragnic patchouli.)

As a kid, when ordered to do something "because I said so," I frequently found myself on the wrong side of "law" for asking for some sort of rationale.

Today's microagression comes in the form of a homework assignment my eight year old handed in.  The assignment, a book report, required him to describe the five items he liked best about the book he had read.  He completed the task, I reviewed it with him, and he handed it in.

Last night, his teacher returned the paper with her "corrections," asking that our son "fix" his "mistakes."

So far, so good.  I value education, and I am pleased for my son to have his errata laid out for improvement.

In this particular instance, however, I was quite disturbed to see that the teacher had marked as wrong our son's use of the enumerative "First....second... third" and "last of all."  His teacher "corrected" these to be written as "Firstly," "secondly," etc.

His teacher is wrong.  And I've told my son that she is wrong.  (As an aside, the use of "firstly" versus "first" is plainly laid out in, inter alias, Strunk and White and the OED).  My sister is an English teacher, and I for certain will be checking with her opinion as well.

My dilemma is this: I do not want my son to learn improper usage; at the same time, I want him to get out of the third grade.  Here, he is confronted with an authority figure - demonstrably in error - requiring him to correct an assignment that he knows is not wrong.  

I recall when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, a geography lesson in which the teacher insisted that the capital of Canada was Montreal.  She marked my exam as wrong, and would not be budged.  Now, I was born in Canada. The overwhelming majority of my family are Canadian.  My mother and all but one of my uncles currently live in Canada.  The teacher simply would not be convinced that the correct answer was Ottawa.

Of course, in this case, the immediate solution - to go the library, get a copy of the World Book Encyclpedia, Volume "C", and show her that she was wrong - was quite simple.  Note, though, that I said "immediate solution."  The teacher, forced to confront her mistake, grudgingly corrected the correction, but was plainly less than happy about it, and I believe afforded the rest of my work for the semester the royal treatment.

I have decided in this case to try to settle on a middle course.  Usage "evolves" over time (consider the current acceptability in our language of "the data is," or the use "leverage" as a verb).  I've asked my son to adhere in this case to the teacher's request.  I've also pointed out to him that this is a perfect example that sometimes the king is wrong, and indeed, authority figures are most decidedly not always right.

Unless it's his parents, of course.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Marching to the Beat of Another Drummer: Round and Round We Go

Do YOU March to the Beat?

With the onset of spring and warmer, longer days here in France, I've adjusted to a degree my workout routines.  Paris sits at a surprisingly high northern latitude, at least to this US expat, which means darker winters and brighter summers compared to the States.  During the winter months, with darkness arriving at 430 in the afternoon, my running was exclusively on the sidewalks through the streets of Paris.  This has the up-side of some truly inspiring views; I alternated my routes to pass by the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde with its obelisk, the Musee du Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower, to name a few.

Now that it is light until nearly 9 PM each evening, the parks are open and available later and later, which allows me to use the nearby Parc Monceau for much of my course.  I've found that running the loop around the bucolic park is a bit easier on the joints than the stone sidewalks, and it's defninitely a lot more efficient, and probably safer as well, than the streets, where I am forced to contend with traffic and pedestrians.  As an added bonus, the loop is almost exactly a kilometre around, which makes pacing and planning very easy.  The park is also quite nice, with many trees, flowers, a small lake, and a sprinkling of fake artefacts (a faux Roman pillar, a replica of an Egyptian pyramid) as pleasant distractions.

I'm decidedly middle-aged, and thus am careful to take measures to prevent injuries.  I have read that one should alter the direction of travel so as to distribute the impact of turning more equally between left and right.  Hence, on odd days, I run clock-wise around the park, and even days, anti-clock-wise.  Not sure if this benefits my knees, but at the least, there is a minor placebo effect.

The park is often full of other runners, which is a relatively new phenomenon in France, where running has taken a certain following, only a few years after former President Nicolas Sarkozy was jeered for his passion for such an "Anglo-Saxon" pursuit.  

What I've noticed, but had not thought of previously, is how uniform other runners are.  On my first foray into the park, I ran around the loop in the "standard," anti-clock-wise direction.  The same as virtually every other runner.  Only the people strolling the path headed the opposite direction.  However, the next trip into Monceau, I ran clockwise.  To my chagrin, this was decidedly against what every other runner was doing that day.  It's not an exaggeration that every other runner in Park Monceau was running anti-clock-wise.

In fact, several looked at me with a certain shock that I would be so heterodox to run clock-wise.

I wonder, is it peer-pressure, conformity, what, that results in such a uniform behaviour?  In competitive track, of course, the racers all must go the same direction, and that direction happens to be anti-clock-wise.  But why should casual jogging, and to be fair, the French may have taken to running, but they still are more or less plodding along at a pretty slow pace, be so uniform?

Horse racing is a bit more varied.  In the UK, typically, the horses run in a clock-wise (what in equestrian is called "right-handed") fashion.  But it's not uniform - there are both right and left-handed races in the UK, depending on the location.  In the US, of course, it's entirely left-handed, which according to this article came as a reaction to the predominance of right-hand racing in England, which was cast out along with King George III in the US revolution.  Over time, there had been attempts in the States to re-introduce right-hand racing, but each attempt failed, and as a bit of trivia, the very last right-hand race in the US was at Belmont Park, where the famous horse Man o' War won the final leg of his triple crown in 1920.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

In the Interest of Creating a Free and Open Dialogue...

....sit silently and watch this film.  

One of my favourite tart quotes from The Simpsons, now nearly 20 years ago (I think).

Apparently, back in the US, there is a mini-tempest swirling around the forced, auto-da-fe of (now ex) Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.  Eich, one of the creators of the web browser "Firefox" and multi-platform language Java, got into some hot water, retroactively, when it was "discovered" that he gave $1000 to the campaign in favour of California ballot proposition Eight.  The initiative, which infamously banned same-sex marriage in the Golden State, passed by a comfortable margin in 2008.  It was, of course, subsequently struck down as unconstitutional.

Now, I personally found the proposition wrong-headed and mean-spirited, and said as much at the time.  Furthermore, I find the opposition to equal rights for gay people at the least bizarre, and have said so as well.  

In fact, I find it more than bizarre; I find the fervent opposition to be wrong headed and cruel.
But on this issue (gay marriage), I think that largely, the conservatives are about as wrong as they possibly could be...
Frankly, the only real reason I see for anti-gay marriage ads is meanness. I do not know a lot of gay people, but I do know more than one. Some are nice people. Some are obnoxious. I do not see why the government should deny them the basic right to enter into contracts with one another, and to treat those contracts with the same respect as any other.
So this year, at Christmas time, in the time of miracles and of the forgiveness of man (the reason Christ came into the world), instead of puffing ourselves up "defending" marriage and righteousness, let's take a look at how we are living up to one of the few things that He asked when He came to the world.
How are we treating our fellow man?
The answer to that question is far more relevant in my view than any propositions we sign or lawmakers we call to defend marriage against a threat that just does not exist.
For what it's worth, in 2000, when the Knight Initiative (Proposition 22), which also sought to restrict marriage rights, I voted "No," and had a "No on 22" sign in my yard in San Jose.  (In those days, I was still living in California).

This is not to say that I think that people whose opinions that differ from mine are bad people, or that they necessarily are bigots.  I think they're wrong, and I think that, over time, most will come to see that.

Which brings us to Eich.

Once it was discovered that Eich had contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign, the ruction became sufficiently timourous that he was more or less forced to resign.  

Is this really where we want to go as a culture?  

William F. Buckley once quipped in response to the famous remark attributed to Voltaire (wrongly), that one may oppose another's viewpoint, but would be willing to fight to the death to protect one's right to say it, that "liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views."

The whole sad story is not making much news here in Europe, but it's all over various social media to which I subscribe, and apparently, the crime of Mr Eich is not so much that he gave the money, six years ago, but rather, that when he was given the chance to confirm that he had changed his views, he refused to do so.

See the difference?  He is unsuited to be the CEO not so much because of his donation six years ago (after all, if we look back and hold people accountable to their prior stated preferences, that is going to rule out most of the Democratic party, as even President Obama opposed gay marriage as a candidate then, and the Clinton administration has one of the worst records in recent history on laws passed with respect to gay rights), but because he thinks differently from the mob.  

Had Eich offered a sufficiently circumspect mea culpa, perhaps his job might have been saved.

This is wrong, in my opinion, no matter how one looks at the issue.  What it says is, "if you do not agree with the majority view, you will be purged."  I think that progressive columnist Andrew Sullivan puts it quite succinctly, when he states
Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me - as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today - hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else - then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.
A New York Times editorial questioned whether this action represented "militant tolerance" (sic). 

Sullivan is right, IMHO, and the answer to the Times' question is "yes."

I understand, of course, that Mozilla is a private company.  It exists in a quasi-capitalist economy, and as such, must respond to the demands of its consumers.  It is not a First Amendment or even a  free speech issue as some have framed it.  If Mozlla think that having a chief executive who offends its customers is bad for business, then he should go.

But I would ask those consumers if, indeed, this is the direction we want to go?  Do we want people to feel constrained from expressing their opinions or participating in political action because they might be outed and fired?  Their careers destroyed?  If so, what happens when it's your opinion that is in the minority, or your voice that is unpopular.

The Dixie Chicks, anyone, or has that gone down the memory hole?

The principle of tolerated free speech exists precisely because of unpopular views.  After all, it's damned easy to "defend" views that are popular, or in agreement with our own.

Saying that we like bunnies and chocolate ice cream sundaes is not freedom in any real way.  Sorry.

There is a quote circling the internet attributed to, of all people, Keith Richards.  Richards is not a brilliant man, and I cannot actually verify that he said or wrote it, but it captures my views.

"We don't kick people out of the band because of their politics.  We're not the f***ing Politburo."

Gimme shelter, indeed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Is Age Really Just a Number

A friend of a friend has a web page in which he is travelling the world, stopping here and there to take pictures of things that strike his fancy.  This past month, he's been on the US east coast - most recently in the New York-New England corridor.  During his trip (he hails from Southern California), he captured a couple of pictures of the gothic buildings on the Yale University campus (founded in 1701).

In the US, 1701 is ancient history.  Of course, when Yale was founded, its chief rival, Harvard, had been in existence for more than a half century.  

The pictures got me to thinking that what is "historic" is in large part of function of where you are.

I lived most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, in central California.  My first home in San Jose was an American Four Square built in 1901.  The neighbourhood I lived in - Naglee Park - was one of the first fully planned communities in the US, and had many "historic" homes.  My own house, which celebrated its 100th year during my time living there, was considered old in California, coming just after the Victorian era (the neighbourhood had a few "Victorian" buildings, but not many - there is more classic Victorian architecture in nearby Santa Cruz, Los Gatos, and of course, San Francisco itself), and just before the Arts and Crafts movement (the neighbourhood had comparatively many "California Craftsman" bungalows, which proliferated in the 1900-1925 period).

A few years ago, my company moved my family to Princeton, New Jersey. The town of Princeton pre-dates the US (hence the name) by more than 100 years, and there are several homes and buildings in the area build before 1800.  My "old" house in San Jose would of course be considered "vintage" in Princeton, but by no means remarkably so.

Last year, again as a company relocation, my family and I moved to Paris, France.  On Saturday, walking home from taking our dog to a nearby park, we happened across an art nouveau apartment, constructed in 1901.  It looked radically 'new' (hence the name art nouveau), compared to the generally Haussmannien style buildings that made up the lion's share of the block.  Haussmann style buildings are the classic "Parisien" style most Americans imaging when they think of Paris - five-floor, stone-faced buildings with gabled or mansard roofs.  The art nouveau apartment was a stark contrast.  In further fact, when the Paris Metro opened at the turn of the 20th century, most of its signage and stations used the style, and some of these survive even today.  

Of course, Baron Haussmann's work was an early example of urban renewal in the mid to late 19th century in Paris - at the behest of Napoleon III, the city of Paris was modernised by demolishing many of the gothic and Romanesque buildings and narrow streets of the city to create a more modern, open city. 

Haussmann died in 1891.

My own apartment building in Paris was constructed at the end of the ancienne regime at the turn of the end of the 18th century.  

Paris is an old city, but it itself has nothing on Prague in the Czech Republic, which we visited in March.  In Prague, there has not been a Baron Haussmann - even the Soviets did not do much in terms of uprooting and destroying the glorious, old buildings.  The astronomical clock, for example, was constructed starting in 1410.  Prague is almost a living museum piece, with hundreds of gothic and older buildings.  We had dinner one evening in a gothic clock tower that had been retro-fitted to purpose.

German (and also allied) bombs had little impact on the city, which for the most part escaped the unintended urban "renewal" inflicted on the great cities of Europe in the two world wars.

Paris has few remaining gothic buildings - the Notre Dame Cathedral stands out, and last year celebrated its 850th anniversary.  

Friday, 4 April 2014

Let Freedom Ring

I was involved this week in an interesting back on forth with friends, friends of friends, and at least one relative about the relative success of the launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) back in the US (often called "ObamaCare" both derisively by its detractors, and approvingly by its supporters).

The discussion touched on many issues, such as the level of coverage, the cost, who was to "blame" for its short-comings (even its most fervent supporters are forced to admit that it is far from ideal), and the like.  In my own view, the Act represents most of what I see are the worst aspects of American government process these days.

In any case, near the end of the discussion - one in which I found myself in the rather odd position of being obliquely accused of being a liberal - one of the participants complained, loudly, that the ACA and President Obama are markers of the tremendous "destruction" of liberty in the USA.

Now, aside from the shock of being painted as some sort of left winger (I have personally been called a crypto-fascist right to my face; there is nothing "crypto" about my alleged "fascism," which has always been pretty much in plain view), I found the whole "Obama is destroying our freedom" trope strange from someone whom I suppose was a big supporter of the previous president and his "War on Terror."  

When I asked the commenter if he had a similar view of George W Bush, my question was answered with a remark about spending, followed by a question about as someone who comes from Canada and lives in France what I might possibly know about freedom.

As an aside, it's true I live in Paris, and it's also true that my younger brother "outed" me as a Canadian by birth earlier.  However, I have lived most of my life in the US, although the majority of that was in California, which I suspect the other party regards as part of the creeping anti-American Fifth Column.

It's an attitude, however, that I suspect is shared by people beyond this individual.  That is, that the USA, alone, is a 'free' country, and its citizens, again alone, really know and understand freedom.  

Is it really fair, however?  True?  

Again, I come from Canada, although I moved to the US with my family as a small child (again, to Los Angeles, California, perhaps the epicentre of soft-headed liberalism).  Is Canada less "free" than the US?  Is it a sort of Big Brother, 1984 nightmare?  Is that how Americans, when they think of Canada, view the country?  How is Canada less "free" than the US?  

My suspicion is that most Americans in all honesty have little first-hand knowledge of whether Canada is "free" or not.  If the aforementioned President Bush - who fell prey to the practical joke of being asked, on camera, his views about "Prime Minister" Poutine (a side dish of potatoes and cheese) - is used as a yard stick, I suspect that the knowledge is very, very thin.  Most, perhaps, know that in Canada, the ready availibility of hand guns is not what it is in the States, which I suppose is a sort of restriction on "freedom." 

But we all know that Canada is a socialist, tax-spend-regulate nightmare, right?  Bill O'Reilly frequently complains about the country. 

On the other hand, a recent report by the libertarian think tank The Heritage Foundation found that Canada ranked sixth in the world in terms of economic liberty.  

The US was 12th.


The country I currently call home - France - is frequently the target of negative pieces back in the States as well.  Because Paris refused to back the US invasion of Iraq, "French Fries" became "Freedom Fries" in the US Capitol dining room.  Never mind, of course, that "French" fries are actually from Belgium.

Is France less "free" than the US? Do the French not really understand freedom, other than what they see in Hollywood movies?

It's true that in France, there are restrictions on speech (for example, one may not make claims denying the Holocaust).  The erstwhile comedian Dieudonné Mbala Mbala ran afoul of the local authorities when his one man show mocked Zionists and Holocaust activists.  And the French are quite comfortable with the omnipresence of closed circuit cameras in the public sphere.

Yet, as a resident of Paris, there is not a palpable feel of Big Brother, waiting just off stage to leap in hustle me off to a dark, windowless room.  

Then again, I come from Canada, so maybe I don't really "understand" freedom.

At the same time, Americans, following September 11, seem more than happy to see some of their own freedoms eroded.  Phone spying, the PATRIOT Act, pat-downs at the airport.  All in the name of "security."

Who is really "free?"

It's worth pointing out that many of the ideas of freedom, however, arise in France - Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu were all French, as was Alexis de Toqueville.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps one of the leading minds in American political history, was a great admirer of the French and passed many years in Paris, as did Benjamin Franklin.  Both knew a thing or two about freedom.

I've included below a "heat" map of the levels of freedom throughout the world, from another think tank (Freedom House) who receive about 2/3 of its funding from the US government.  It doesn't offer any comparison directly among the US, France, and Canada, but from the map, none looks to be the second coming of the Soviet Union.

World Map Displaying Levels of "Freedom" in Our World
Don't get me wrong; I am proud to be an American - even an ersatz one who sneaked in from Canada.  I love my country.

But I find the idea that the US has cornered the market on freedom, and that others simply cannot "understand" freedom, well, laughable.

Ha ha ha.

Happy Friday.  I'm going to go out and celebrate with some French, freedom-crushing vodka as I listen to the local, government-funded orchestra play The Internationale.

Which was written in France.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

There Is No "ME" in Children. It's Really That Simple

All the Hoopla: But Who Is REALLY  Competing?

This morning, I read a link an old high-school friend supplied in which the author, a professional writer, decried the efforts modern parents put into making their children's childhoods "magical."  It was more specific - speaking about how modern moms put too much effort into it, and declaring that she is now "done making (her) kid's childhood 'magical.'"

The piece appears in the Huffington Post, and it actually contains some intersting, and in my mind, spot-on, observations about designer parenting.

But the post struck a somewhat larger point to me.  

For a start, this sentence: 
Since when does being a good mom mean you spend your days creating elaborate crafts for your children, making sure their rooms are decked-out Pottery Barn Ikea masterpieces worthy of children's magazines, and dressing them to the nines in trendy coordinated outfits
My initial reaction to the piece was, "whom is the writer really talking about here?"  Who actually spends days and days creating "Pottery Barn Ikea masterpieces" for his kids?  

Personally, I've never owned a single thing from Ikea and find most of their products too modern and linear for my tastes, and my son has not a single thing from Pottery Barn.  

Let's face some likely facts here - people reading a blog on Huffington Post are almost surely from what David Brooks (borrowing, as it were from Parisians who it turns out coined the term) calls "BoBos" = the bohemian bourgeoise. 

That is to say, upper middle class (or higher), largely urban people who inhabit the trendier places of our trendier cities.  They don't typically live in Sioux Falls.  Think the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Or Palo Alto, California.  Or perhaps Hancock Park or Los Feliz in Los Angeles.  (One place they do NOT live is San Francisco, where the locals have realised that children are simply not compatible with a selfish, hipster lifestyle, and thus kids have almost completely disappeared).

Solipsistically, we all know these sorts of people.  Some of us are at risk to be one of them.

This lead me to the next question, which is, what is driving what is, in reality, a competition?  And, who is really the competitor?  Is the goal, as the author implies, really about "making your kids' lives 'magical,' or is it in fact, trying to convince yourself that you are a good parent, more to the point, to communicate to your friends and peers (your competition, if we are being honest) that you are?

Such a competition would likely be laughable to people in the lower middle or working classes.  This is a malady in Menlo Park, not Oakland.  It's really yet another fake 'crisis' being created by the chattering classes.

I would argue that most of the Pottery Barn parenting, which in my view is somewhat corollary to what I would call Williams Sonoma housekeeping, has little to nothing to do with making your kids' lives magical, and much to everything to do with making your own parenthood magical.

I am not the most sentimental person in the world, as I am reminded often by family and friends, but my own childhood was, as I recall, a special time.  Not sure I would call it "magical," but it was a time filled with fond memories.  And these memories, I think, are not filtered through rose-coloured glasses.  Those memories are filled with friends, with my siblings, and with my mother and my father.

If I am being perfectly honest, I think that a lot of this competition stems from the guilt that many modern parents feel because, frankly, they do not make space in their lives for their kids.  And being "super achievers," we want to be told what super mothers or fathers we are.  We feel guilty because, in the relentless pursuit of "me" activities - careers, awards, recognition for being a brilliant executive or researcher or journalist - we have outsourced our children to an army of nannies and day care and consultants.

Here is a stark fact: if you feel that you need to have a Pottery Barn childhood for your kids, you likely are NOT a good mother or father.  Period.  

This is not meant as a judgment or a condemnation of the super achieving mom.  Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame comes to mind.   Sandberg has done a hell of a lot, and she is a brilliant businesswoman.  

Is she a great mom?  Maybe, but I suspect the answer is "no," if we are again, being perfectly honest.

It's OK.  We cannot be great at everything.  It's not an attack.

My mother was a great mother because, in my opinion, she made sure that there was space in her life for us.  My wife is a great mother for the same reason.  Is either an achiever like Sandberg?  If either wrote a book, would anyone (besides me) buy it?  The idea is laughable.

Similarly, it is just not possible to be a great CEO and a great parent.  

In my job as a mathematical analyst, one of the things I am tasked with is to make economic models to demonstrate the impact of various choices.  Economics is, among other things, a way of demonstrating the consequences of the allocation of resources.  It does not "judge" those choices.

Like it or not, our time is a resource.  It's not, in many ways, unlike money, or iron ore, or crude oil.  It's not unlimited; its value is not absolute.  We make choices on whether to use gold to make jewellery or computer parts.  It cannot be both simultaneously.

The same is true of our time and our lives.  Every minute I spend networking (like Sandberg) or enhancing my skills (like Sergey Brin) is a minute that, necessarily, I cannot spend "making my son's life magical."  It's as simple as that.  

My own father was a surgeon.  He had the chance at one time to become the head of a medical school.  He almost surely could have made more money or become more eminent in the medical community.  He chose not to.  I am sure that personally, I could be a better parent.  I probably should spend a bit less time on work and more with my son.  I hope that the choices I make are the right ones.  Some days I am not sure.  

I also could be more successful in my career if I made other choices.  Some things I find more important.

But I am not under the illusion that I can be great at everything I do, and no amount of lying to myself about "quality time" as I shove my son off to a nanny so I can go to yet another conference to develop my career or ride off to save the world changes that.

And buying a "magical" childhood for him at Pottery Barn to impress my friends won't, either.

One Point Twenty-One Gigawatts

Here in France, and I suppose all over Europe as well, the motorways are blighted with 'speed cameras.'  I personally have received a present from the authorities in the mail.

Turns out, based on a study conducted in the UK, the solution may appuyez sur l'accélérateur, and not les freins.

According to students at the University of Leicester, if one can get the car to a sufficient speed, the vehicle will become invisible to speed cameras.

The problem is that one must reach approximately 190 km per hour.

I guess until the invention of the flux capacitor, we are forced to adhere to the posted speed limits.

Monday, 31 March 2014

L'Heure D'Ete

Another Year of Blue Jays' Baseball Starts Today

Here in Paris, we turned our clocks forward Sunday morning, starting the "heure(s) d'été" (summer hours - AKA daylight saving).  Perfect timing, as back home in the US (and yes, Canada as well), Major League Baseball begins its 2014 season.

To be precise, it's worth noting that the season actually began over a week ago; in Sydney, Australia.  By way of a couple of games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Red Hot Riders.  Go figure?

Anyhow, "my" team - the Toronto Blue Jays - kicks off its season tonight (it will be VERY late for us in France) in a game in Tampa Bay against the Devil Rays.

Unlike last year, when I began the season with guarded optimism about the Jays' chances, I am decidedly pessimistic about 2014.  

Recall that, in 2013, the team had added a number of high profile free agents - among them the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and at least one All-Star quality field player.  The two big-spending franchises in the division looked vulnerable - the Yankees due to age and the Red Sox due to just poor play in the previous season and a half.

It didn't really work out.  2013 turned out to be a truly dismal season, perhaps the most depressing in the nearly 40 of the team's history.  A couple of guys got hurt, a couple of guys were just awful, Brett Lawrie was both hurt and then spectacularly mediocre.  JP Arrencibia had a historically bad season as the catcher.

So what for this summer?  It's becoming a sort of routine watching the Blue Jays, who have now not contended for 21 consecutive seasons following back to back World Series titles.  With their flameout in 2013, 74-88, essentially out of contention in mid-May, Toronto has now not finished within 10 games of the playoffs since 1993.

2014 does not look to be a big improvement.  More or less the same team is returning, sans JP Arrencibia and Josh Johnson.  Their absences will of course represent addition by subtraction.  It's hard to imagine their replacements being any worse, assuming they are able-bodied and have full vision.

Of course, the replacements are not likely to be exactly Bill Dickey and Walter Johnson.  For example, Josh Tholes, who at .175 just barely hit my weight last year, is going to be the starter behind the plate.  And Dustin McGowan, the fan favourite for Médecins sans Frontières is on the roster to open the season, though I'm guessing the operating theatre is being prepped as of this moment.

I'm guessing the team, with a few breaks, will win 78-82 games, a modest improvement over 2013.  It's really hard to imagine how they could play worse, though they could surprise.

It will be another more or less lost season in Toronto.

I'll still check their doings in the news, and cheer for them as much as I can from thousands of miles away, in one of the world's great cities with many alternatives to attract my attention.

Play Ball.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

March Madness

Gus Macker, Intellivision Style (circa 1982)

Today, the sun crossed the equator, marking the spring equinox.  In Paris, it's a beautiful, sunny day, about 20 degrees, light breeze.  It's like many of its predecessors in that respect, with the added bonus that the air circulation patterns have changed, and we are no longer under "regles des pics de pollution," like automobile number-plate restrictions.

It's also mid-March, which means that back in the States, the annual NCAA basketball tournament kicks off.  

As I get older, I am less and less interested in sports.  For example, I once followed professional baseball as almost a second religion, worshiping in the Toronto Blue Jays sect.  Over time, with the revelations of the personal indescritions of the players, the movement of them from team to team as more or less athletic versions of the Seven Samurai, and the generally dismal annual fortunes of the Blue Jays, I have to say I am now a bit a lapsed believer.

I still, however, find the NCAA championships compelling; it's a sporting event - a series of them in reality - that really is unique.  68 teams play a single-elimination bracket, each "round" more or less halving the field until a single team is left.

One of the drawbacks to living in Europe is that, due to time differences, the games will be played late into the night.  In my younger days living in California, it was always nice (if detrimental to productivity) that the opening round games tipped off back East at noon, which meant nine AM for us.  Just as I was settling in to work, the first games were starting.  This was at the dawn of the internet, but one could follow the action in more or less real time on ESPN's web page.  (at that time, CBS had not yet shelled out a billion dollars to control content).  Central European Time is nine hours ahead of Pacific time, so the first jump ball will be at five PM here.

Oh well.

Anyhow, it's always a lot of fun to speculate who is going to move on, and who will be bounced early.  

Uber-analyst Nate Silver on his five-thirty-eight blog has created an algorithm to estimate the chances for each team to advance at each level.  His formulae are not revealed, but as a top-line, he indicates what the factors are.

Silver has become famous for his political predictions (I think he got all of the states "right" in the 2012 presidential election), but it's forgotten by many that his start was in sports.

I won't reveal all of Silver's estimations - one really ought to go to the site and look over the content, for, in addition to being a damned good modeller, Silver is an entertaining writer as well), but suffice it to say, he is projecting that defending champs Louisville have the best odds to cut down the final nets.  

The Cards' chances are not terrific (at 15 per cent), but that still puts them at the top, edging out Florida (the top overall seed, 14%) and Arizona (13%).  It's a bit odd that Louisville, a number four seed in their own region, would come out on top.  In fact, Florida have a better chance according to Silver's model, of reaching the Final Four (41%) and national title game (26%)

The team with the highest likelihood of reaching the Final Four is actually Arizona (42%) but the Wildcats fall back a bit at that level, presumably due to travel and/or opposition (they apparently do not match up well against Wisconsin?).

It's all very strange in that the one undefeated team - Wichita State - have apparently the toughest road for all the top seeds.  The Shockers, seeded one in their region, are estimated to have only a 14% chance to reach the final four, behind Louisville (4), Duke (3), and Michigan (2) in their own region.  WS is hurt by the presence of Kentucky as an eight, the team WS will face in the second round.  The model puts them at only slightly better than 50/50 to advance to the round of 16, easily the lowest chances of any top seed.