Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

Quick update to last week's observation about the attraction zombies and zombie flicks hold.  My six year old son "discovered" a mini-game available for our iPhone, "Plants versus Zombies," and wrote off to Santa asking for it.  Of course, the Man in Red delivered ($2.99 - a bargain), and Alastair is now enamoured of the game.


          Zombie on       Traffic Cone
           Zamboni           Zombie

I have to admit to a certain creeping addiction of my own.  The Pea Shooters and Cherry Bombs are particularly amusing, as is the Disco Zombie, who gives a whole new meaning to "Death before Disco."

Friday, 16 December 2011

They're COMING for You, Barbara!

This past week, I watched the season finale for the excellent AMC series The Walking Dead.  I like the show on several levels - it's an entertaining melodrama which raises multifaceted issues, the acting is generally good, and let's face it, you can never get enough living dead shambling about threatening the protagonists in ever creepier ways.

File:Judith O'Dea clutching grave in Night of the Living Dead bw.jpg

Judith O'Dea, "Barbara" from the 1968
George A Romero classic that started it all

The show will return, apparently, in mid-February, so I've a couple of months to wait to see what is going to become of the shrinking band of survivors struggling to escape suburban Atlanta.

I've long enjoyed these sorts of films, whether the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, its various follow-on films (Dawn and Day), or similar films like the terrific 28 Days Later (from Danny Boyle, who went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire to great acclaim) or the re-imagined Dawn of the Dead from the early 2000s.

Oddly, one thing to the "zombie" movie genre is that one never hears the word "zombie" ever used by one of the characters.  "Ghouls."  "Things."  "Walkers."  Sure.  But never the "Z" word.  Even the recent best-seller, obviously about zombies, is titled World War Z.  Just cannot bring themselves to say it.  But I digress.

My wife hates them, and considers the whole premise ridiculous, but whenever I watch these films, there are several things I cannot escape thinking, and perhaps that's why they captivate me (and apparently, lots of other people).

First is, the irresistible temptation to imagine "what would I do if I were in that spot?  Would I be able to survive, and if so, how?"

It strikes me that in virtually all of these scenarios, the survivors would probably end up being OK if they were just able to keep their wits about them.  In 28 Days, the outbreak is contained to an island (in this case, Great Britain.)  Because the problem is spread, quickly, through blood, it's next to impossible to imagine how the epidemic could spread beyond the English Channel, and in fact, towards the very end of the movie, the protagonist lies at the edge of death, sure that the world is on the edge of being wiped out, when he sees the contrail of a jet flying over, as if nothing has happened.  OF COURSE, the virus is only in Britain, and the rest of the world has gone on pretty much normally, as is evidenced in the sequel.  And since the victims of "rage" become raving, homicidal maniacs, all that would be required would be to find a secure place, and wait for them to die of thirst or starvation - a few weeks perhaps.

The same is almost surely true in the other Dead-inspired movies.  One suspects that, given time, the undead would, quite literally, fall apart.  Though mobile, they are not immune to rot and decay (as the special effects of wizard Tom Savini attest), and if the living could just hang on and let nature take its course....

Interestingly, a "study" - a simulation - was done by a group of epidemiologists at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada was published in 2009.  They modelled various scenarios of zombie outbreaks, and the chances for the human race at survival, given various responses.  The results are not, to say the least, encouraging.  It's a bit math-heavy, but a very good read, IMHO.

Which brings me to one of the other unifying themes, and that is, in virtually all of these films and stories, the real "bad guys" turn out not to be the dead, but the living.  Yes; the zombies represent an existential, and omnipresent, menace.  But inevitably, it's panic and internal bickering that prove to be something the survivors cannot overcome.  There is as least as much blood shed by the protagonists as the zombies.

I suppose the writers are saying that, even when confronted with extinction, our innate nature to destroy each other cannot be controlled.

Finally, in several of the movies (28 Days in particular), an interesting, quasi-Dr Strangelove question is raised.  Soldiers near Manchester, England have set a sort of trap for survivors, promising food and protection for those who can make it.  It's revealed later that they intend to kill any men who arrive, and have other plans for the women.  The lieutenant, almost apologetically, explains when asked why such a monstrous plan was devised, that he promised his (all male) outfit that he would find some female survivors.
We fight off the infected or we wait until they starve to death... and then whatWhat do nine men do except wait to die themselves? 
In the films, at some point the issue of the value of survival is always raised, though perhaps not so bleakly as that.

It reminds me of the famous tortoise "Lonesome George," the last of his kind, living in the Galapagos Islands.  George, estimated to be between 90 and 100 years of age, is the last Galapagos Giant Tortoise.  Tortoises, for all their charm, and not particularly circumspect, but it's a rather sad idea to imagine that when he inevitably is gone, that's it, since there are no more females of his kind.

How would human beings react in such a situation?  In 28 Days Later, somewhat violently.

Anyways, Walking Dead returns in about eight weeks.  I'm marking my calendar.

You Never Know

This morning, I saw a sports news article that left-hand pitcher Dontrelle Willis has signed a contract to pitch next year for the Philadelphia Phillies.  In and of itself,. a rather unremarkable story, really.  Guy was 1-6 last year in Cincinnati, ERA of 5.00.  The Phils are taking a chance on him, with a plan to use him as a lefty-lefty specialist next year in the bullpen (lefties hit .127 against Willis last year, which means that right-hand batters must have clobbered him, given his ERA).  There's a ton of these guys who hang around to come in to games in the seventh or eight innings, ostensibly to get one batter out.

What's interesting, and in my view, sad, about this story is the trajectory of Willis's career.  He was the rookie of the year in 2003, and was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award in the National League in 2005, when he went 22-10, tossing five shutouts in 34 starts.  At the time, Willis was 23 years old, and looked to have a long, bright career.

Since the season he chalked up 22 wins, he was won a total of 26 games.

Over six seasons.

And 22 of those 25 were in 2006 and 2007.  For the past four years, Willis has bounced around, pitching pretty poorly for three teams, and winning four games.

Dontrelle Willis, by all accounts I've read, is seen as a pretty good guy.  He never gets in the news for bringing a gun to a nightclub.  Or fighting with a photographer.  Or sending lewd "tweets" to some woman not his wife.

It's truly a bizarre and unfortunate turn of events.  Apparently, his control simply abandoned him, bringing to mind the old maxim (I think from Casey Stengel): "A pitcher who ain't got control, ain't got much."

Essentially, Willis is looking to hold on to what's left of his professional career, which may be over.  He is 29 years old.  You really never know how things are going to work out, and if you need any evidence of why to be grateful for the opportunities and successes you've got when you have them, a reason not to look with envy  or complaint about what you don't have, think about Dontrelle Willis and his career trajectory.

Willis is joining his boyhood friend Jimmy Rollins in Philadelphia, and had this to say about the announcement:
Wherever they need me, whatever role.  I heard someone talking about pinch-hitting, so whatever role. With all of these starters going nine and 10 innings, I'm not sure I'll get the chance to do that. But I just want to get into the best shape I can be and I feel great. I'm not going to rock the boat; I just want to get on. 
 It's a refreshing, and realistic assessment.  No whining; no complaining.  No demand to be a starting pitcher or else.

I sincerely hope that the "D-Train" will make the Phils next year, and have a great season within whatever parameters he is allowed to operate.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

E Pluribus Nevermind

Several years ago, Vice President, future Nobel Laureate, venture capitalist, and all-around (generally acknowledged) genius and renaissance man Al Gore made a remark that the US was, true to its motto (e pluribus unum), "from the one, many."

Of course, Mr Gore got the Latin wrong, but for a guy who invented the internet, put a stop to the unfortunate drowning of polar bears, and gave us the media-shattering "" (without which, how could the eight people who tune in each night watch Keith Olbermann fulminate to the point of near self-implosion), it's a small error.

And in retrospect, perhaps Al Gore was speaking the truth.

To wit: this weekend in the New York Times, there appeared a brief screed attacking the state of Texas, and how it has re-drawn its electoral map, post-2010 census.  In an editorial entitled "Voting Rights and Texas," the Editors complain that, as Texas has added four new congressional seats, the legislature re-drew its boundaries to an effect that there are now 26 "safe" Republican seats (up from 21), whilst at the same time, districts in which "minorities" (largely, Hispanic people in this case) make the majority has fallen from 11 to 10.  All of this, despite the fact that (according to the Times), "almost half of all that growth (in population) came from new Hispanic residents."

Thus, the Times conclude, Texas's new congressional seats represent a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and since Texas is under remediation orders stemming from Jim Crow era laws (yes; the Act is renewed every time it comes up for vote, and thus, one might conclude that how Texas draws its districts, unlike, say, California or New York, will be under federal review forever), the Feds need to step in.

I don't have the data to argue that the Times analysis is correct, but let's presume that they are correct.

There is at least one huge problem with this "analysis," and that is, the number of new Hispanic residents in Texas has accounted for half of the population growth. Unfortunately, only citizens may vote - so in a sense, it doesn't really matter on its face how many new residents a district has when talking about the Voting Rights Act.

But the most egregious problem in the Times' piece is their word choice:"They (the legislature) reduced the number of districts where minorities could elect the candidate of their choice to 10 from 11. (emphasis added)


What is implicit in this argument is a couple of things.  First, that the "candidate of their choice" for Latino voters is necessarily a Latino one, and second, that a Latino candidate cannot win a district where Latinos are not the majority.

Aside from the obvious fact that a black man is now the president of the US, with a plurality of white votes, this sort of "logic" represents a further slide of our nation into the sort of Balkan nonsense elsewhere.  Have we really reached a point where we should be setting aside seats in our government, virtually explicitly, based upon the ethnic makeup of the land?

That's an extreme endgame of what Mr Gore (mistakenly, one presumes) said out loud.  And was endorsed when the Justice Department blocked the new map as it is allowed to do under the 1965 Act. Big shock, of course, given that the alternative map proposed actually INCREASES the number of seats that the Democrats regard as "safe" by three.

To his credit, the AG for Texas argued that the courts, who will judge ultimately this case, have as their job to "apply the law, not to make policy."  The Times counter that the VRA, Section 2, impels the courts to act because of the imperiled ability of "minority groups to elect the representative of their choice."

In a land where we are putatively equal before the law, "groups" do not elect anybody.  In a land where, if Martin Luther King's messages are to be believed, one's "representative of choice" need not be someone of the same race as yourself.

In a nightmare scenario, played out in places like Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia, we will allot our government to groups rather than people, and our representatives  must "look like" the group they represent.  A black man necessarily cannot represent a white constituency, or an Asian a Latino one, etc.

And I have no idea what it is going to mean for my mixed-race son.

THAT does not bode particularly well for a country that is projected to be one with no majority in my lifetime.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the US; families will come together, some who have not seen each other for some time.  A lot of turkey will be eaten.  Even some tofurkey (it's the 21st century, after all). Some will watch football.  Hopefully, we will all give thanks, which is the point.

I'm not one who wears religion on his sleeve, and tend to recoil or regard with suspicion those who are ostentatiously religious.  However, in these days for giving thanks, and the coming time of reflection that the Advent of the coming of our Lord provoke, well, reflective thoughts about what gratitude and good will towards men means.

In Church this past Sunday the Gospel reading was the famous parable of the sheep and the goats of Matthew's Gospel.  In it, the righteous are thanked by Jesus for feeding the hungry, providing drink for the thirsty, kindness to the stranger, and ministry to the sick.
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Likewise, the wicked are reminded that they failed in similar regard
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
Both of course question how this could be, for neither remembers having tended to (or, contrarily, ignored) the needs of their fellow man.  And to each, Jesus answers
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
It's one of my favourite readings, and to me reminds me of one of the central commandments of our faith.  Basically, before almost everything else, we are to see, truly and clearly, the needs of those weaker and less fortunate than ourselves, and to help where we can.

It's my hope that in the season of thanks and celebration, I will do the best I can to see when a hand in need of help is reaching out, and that I will extend my own open hand to do so.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Ah, Sweet Semantics.

My sister-in-law has jumped into the blogging pool with both feet this month; her writing is more of a personal nature than mine, discussing life events rather than complaining about the state of the world.

Today, she has posted some observations about accountability that I think are particularly useful and timely, given what's going on around us.  I won't steal her thunder, of course, but her comments provoked me to consider what "accountability" really means, and how it plays out in the modern world.

Every day, we hear all sorts of people talking about "accountability."  The President talks about accountability for the financial mess we're in.  Executives speak of how they pledge to be "accountable" to their shareholders, workers, and customers for decisions.  Janet Reno, the former AG, spoke to much acclaim from the press about how she accepted "full responsibility" for the disastrous raid on the Waco compound of religious fanatics (of course, "responsibility" and "accountability" are not precisely the same, but close enough to be useful here).  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are demanding that "The One Per Cent" be held to account for the myriad ills they perceive.

One can, of course, flip open a dictionary (or even more conveniently, look it up on-line, which carries far less risk of a paper cut) to see what the word "accountability" means.

It's one man's observation, of course, but I find that none of these people who claim to accept "accountability" actually do so.  Accountability means more than just insincere (or even sincere) mea culpas on "60 Minutes." Part of the deal is that there be parallel consequences.  People are willing to do the former, but precious few are really prepared for the latter.

In the operetta "The Mikado," the eponymous character at the beginning of the second act sings of his goal to make the punishment fit the crime, and then proceeds to list precisely how he plans to carry this out. It's parody of course, but I highly recommend a listen.

The head of a bank that twisted the rules to the limit of breaking so he could fatten his bonus is not really accepting "accountability" by saying "Sorry.  I won't do it again."  Sure; his firm may pay some fines (the source of which is more than likely to be recovered in fees passed on to some of the customers he defrauded).  He's ain't giving up his home in the Hamptons.  He may toss a few low-level employees to the wolves, of course.  SOMEONE has to be accountable, I guess.

Janet Reno said she would take responsibility for incinerating dozens of people, including small children.  She continued on for many years as AG, and even ran for governor of Florida and currently tours the country making lucrative speeches about the criminal justice system.

Is that "responsibility" in any real way?

Has anyone on Wall Street really been held to accounts in any tangible way?  Any CEO or other executive appeared in the dock to answer for what they did?

The Occupy Wall Street people are right to demand that those responsible for facilitating our economic meltdown should be made accountable for what they've done.

But are even they willing to be responsible?  Responsible for borrowing money to buy a house that they could not afford?  For running up massive debts to buy gadgets that they did not need or to spend six years partying in college, ultimately, in many cases, failing to obtain a degree of dubious value to begin with?

When I was child, it was understood that if I broke the rules, my parents would hold me to account - and they largely did.  I don't know if that's still universally true (a few years back, some wealthy parents in Saratoga, California actually threatened to take their school to court if it disciplined their children who had admitted cheating on the AP exams), but most kids do get that if they get caught breaking the rules, they will be punished.

And that punishment will not likely include being allowed to keep millions of dollars in bonuses that were gained as a result of their misdeeds.

Accountability must include real contrition, and also must include consequences that, more often than not, will at least discomfit the person "accepting" accountability.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Day the Music Died, ca. 2011

An era of sorts came to an end today.  More truthfully, it was yesterday - the event itself occurred yesterday, but I read the news today, oh boy.

Of course, I am talking about the passing of Apple co-founder and tech icon Steve Jobs, who died at the age of 56.  A lot has already been written about Mr Jobs, most of it glowing comments on how much he and his ingenuity changed the world.  I've never been a big fan of Steve Jobs, and I have long thought of Apple as a sort of cult for gadget-worshiping acolytes.

There's a centuries old admonition not to speak ill of the deceased, and I am absolutely sure that Mr Jobs's passing, particularly at such a relatively young age (56) will leave a tremendous scar on his family and friends.  I lost my own father when he was 53 a decade and a half ago, and indeed, it leaves a hole that is never really filled or covered-over.

That said, I would tend to point to the observation that Senator Edward Kennedy made of his brother Robert F Kennedy during his famous eulogy in 1968 - one should not make more of (Jobs) in death than he was in life.

Was Steve Jobs a "visionary?"  Did he really make the world a better place, as some would have you believe?

To the former, I would have to say a qualified "yes."  He certainly had a vision - of user-friendly, slickly packaged products.  The fact that Apple is now the most valuable tech company in the world, and the second most valuable company (behind only Exxon Mobil) speaks to the consequence of that.

Did he make the world a better place?  I would say that the latter conjecture is somewhat of a mixed bag.

Mr Jobs did not actually invent any of the technologies or products that had so profound an impact on the world.  The smart phone; the mp3 player.  The GUI.  The mouse interface.  None of these was pioneered by Jobs or even Apple, for that matter.

But what Steve Jobs's real genius was was taking someone else's great ideas and packaging them in such a way that they appealed to more than just a handful of tech geeks in San Jose, California.  He was able not to see a need, but to create one, almost out of whole cloth.  No one, of course, needs to have a $400 telephone with a slick interface and the ability to "tweet" 140-character esoterica 24/7.  But when Mr Jobs, the Prophet in the Black Turtleneck pitched the latest gadget from a stage in the Moscone Centre in San Francisco, that item immediately became a totem.  Either you had the newest geegaw, or you didn't.

And the Macnostic cultists responded.  Queues, days in advance at times, formed outside the Apple Store to hand over money.

Are we better off?  In many ways, yes we are.  We can now stay in touch, get information, and run our lives from virtually anywhere in the world.  An array of music, entertainment, and connection is now at our fingertips, virtually wherever and whenever we want.

THAT has real value.

The cost, of course, is the stoking of desire for expensive toys that not all can afford (perhaps most cannot).  More to the point, as our linkages grow, our ability to disconnect shrinks.  We are now virtually never "free."  And of course, with the proliferation of iPads and iPods, our real, personal connections are replaced by virtual ones.  Music, once a shared experience, is now increasingly a solitary one.  We speak to each other face to face less, and with "twitter" more.

That's not necessarily a good thing.  Technological advance is not without price.

Ultimately, in assessing the impact of Steve Jobs, I return to the idea that he, more than anything, was perhaps the greatest marketeer who has ever lived.  This is perfectly, if indirectly, summed up today reading the encomia about his life.

In one obit circulating, ironically, Mr Jobs is spoken of as a co-founder of Apple with "a friend from high school."  The fact that Steve Wozniak - the actual creator of the Apple computer is not mentioned by name until about 90% of way through, and then as a sort of aside, is perfect testimony to how great Steve Jobs's ability to package the world as he saw it really was.

Steve Jobs in my estimation was the PT Barnum for the 21st century.  He did not really discover "Dumbo," but brought the beast to the masses.  He less fulfilled needs than created desires.

His life represents a triumph of will, really, and the ability to convince the world that his vision of how things could or should be needed to prevail. He's now gone, and it will be interesting to see how Apple carries on in his absence.  I suspect for the Macnostics, this is somewhat akin to the death of Peter in the early days of the Church.  I reckon the search is going on for a new Pope to shepherd  the faithful.


Monday, 19 September 2011

You Lie! (AGAIN)

Remember when SC Congressman Joe Wilson yelled "You lie!" at President Obama?  How scandalous it was?  Why, you'd think he farted in Nancy Pelosi's personal elevator.

Well, it turns out Mr Wilson was more or less correct, which perhaps explains the phony outrage.

You see, this weekend President Obama proposed to control our spiraling deficits with a "Buffett Tax."

It's a big lie, of course.

First, even most optimistic projections are the proposal will raise $1.5 trillion OVER 10 YEARS.  Our current deficit for the current fiscal year is $1.6 trillion for 2011.  Alone.

Second, the "Buffet Tax" will get most of its revenues from taxes on families earning between $250,000 and $1 MM.  It's not even a millionaire's tax, let alone a tax on a hypocritical plutocrat like Buffett.

Are the Democrats simply incapable of telling the truth because they no longer know what it actually is, or do they just reckon we can't handle it?

Monday, 29 August 2011

Blowin in the Wind

Hurricane Irene blew through town this weekend, leaving in its angry wake downed trees and no power - PG&E say it may not be restored until Sunday, giving us a full eight days without power.

The Toronto Blue Jays have all but wrapped up a dismal homestand against Kansas City and Tampa Bay.  The Royals came to town having not won a series since June, and not having taken a series in Toronto in nine years - and the Blue Jays were lucky to take one of the games.  Tampa has thus far made the Jays look like little leaguers, winning the first three easily.  Sunday afternoon's game was an embarrassing 12-0 loss, with Rays' starter David Price combining with two relievers to whiff a Toronto team record 18 batters.

Now I know why the winds were so strong at the weekend - it had nothing to do with Irene.  It was all that fanning going on by Toronto bats.

Kelly Johnson, the newest Jay acquired from Arizona collected the Golden Sombrero, with four Ks in four ABs.

It's an odd stat, but if one combines the final week Johnson played in Arizona (a team in contention for the playoffs) with his first four games as a Jay, Johnson has not played for the winning team since August 16th, a 3-2 win in Philadelphia.

Johnson has participated in 10 straight losing efforts, and has not walked on the field to shake hands in a victory in two weeks.

Yeah - that trade is working out brilliantly.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mike Flanagan, RIP

Read today of the passing of former left-hand pitcher Mike Flanagan, a guy who got as much out of a batting practice fastball as anyone.

Flanagan was 60 years old, and best remembered as the guy who won the 1979 Cy Young award; he went 23-9 for the Baltimore Orioles team that lost to the disco-themed "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates.

Just thinking about those two items (that Pittsburgh AND Baltimore made the World Series, and that disco was sufficiently main stream that it was featured in a non-ironic way) makes me feel old.

My best recollection of Flanagan was his remarkable performance, as a fading former star, in the penultimate game of the ultimately doomed Toronto season of 1987.  Flanagan faced off on the final Saturday of that season against Jack Morris and the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium.  The teams entered the game tied for first, but heading in opposite directions.

At 36, Flanagan pitched 11 innings, giving up one earned run; the Tigers ended up winning in the 12th on a double-play ball off the bat of Alan Trammell that rolled under the glove of Jays' rookie shortstop Manny Lee (Lee was playing in place of All Star Tony Fernandez, who had had his elbow broken the week before, in a game also against the Tigers).

Toronto went on the lose the final game of the season, and the pennant, the next day, in a 1-0 game - interestingly, pitched by another very soft-tossing lefty: Frank Tanana.  The loss capped an epic collapse - Toronto lost its final seven games of the season, squandering what had been a five game lead with seven to play.

Interestingly, and I was unawares of this fact - Flanagan had been a teammate of Julius Erving on the UMass basketball team.  He quipped in an interview that, after guarding "Dr J" in practice, he realised he ought to pay more attention to his pitching mechanics.

Flanagan was a quick wit, apparently, in addition to being a class act.


Monday, 22 August 2011

Is "Crazy" Rick Perry Pinky or the Brain?

Although it's only August of the year before the 2012 presidential elections, the air is, as they say, heating up.  I fear from the rhetoric it's going to be a particularly nasty campaign, which given the way 2010 went, is saying a lot.

The governor of Texas, the unctuous Rick Perry, has apparently tossed his ten-gallon hat into the ring, and I have to say, I am shocked by the reaction of the Democratic party noise machine to the announcement.

Perry is behind at least a couple of other candidates in the GoP (most notably, the ideologically pliant Mitt Romney), so it's odd that the mouthpieces are focusing on him; more to the point, not so much that they are focusing on Perry, but how they are focusing.

In reading political blogs, editorials in mainstream newspapers, and listening to broadcast and cable news, the apparent meme that is going to be deployed against Rick Perry is not that he's done a bad job in Texas, or that his performance is somehow disqualifying, or that he lacks experience.  Or even, for that matter, that the current president deserves to be re-elected because he's done such a bang-up job.

No; what has been said, over and over again, is that Perry is not wrong in his thinking, but that he is "crazy."

Several friends and peers on social media have picked this up and run with it.  One friend actually wrote that Rick Perry is "bat shit crazy."

"Bat shit crazy?"  That's not something I've ever seen in the DSM-IV manual, a book that I use in my job in neuroscience research frequently.

What exactly has Rick Perry done to provoke this diagnosis?  Well, among other things, he proposes to repeal the 16th and 17th amendments.  The former, of course, empowered the federal government to levy income taxes; the latter took the election of senators from the hands of state legislatures and provided for direct elections by the people. In the words of the writer, Perry is crazy because he wants to "bake his personal opinions and bias into the Constitution."

Now, setting aside the absolute and frank irony that "baking his opinions" into the constitution here is in fact overturning amendments that themselves were the result of a previous person's "baking his opinions" into the Constitution, I don't see how a person, seeing an obvious problem, proposing to follow the laws set out by the framers to alter the Constitution as it was meant to be amended is "crazy."

Perry may be wrong; but it apparently is no longer enough to argue that the opposition is simply wrong.  They are insane.  They are wild-eyed, bigoted lunatics sort of like cartoon characters Pinky and the Brain.

Governor Rick Perry, Wild and Crazy Guy

This particular line is being used not just on Rick Perry, but other Republicans (Michelle Bachmann recently appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in a particular example of extreme yellow journalism, in a photo plainly chosen to fit the theme that she, like Perry, is simply as mad as a March hare.)

I expect we're going to be treated to this for the next 15 months - the GoP candidates and their solutions are not wrong per se, but just too nutty to even consider.  We're going to hear over and over how they are "anti-science" (whatever that means), irrational, crazy, raving lunatics.  We'll hear about how they are climate-change "deniers" (a very carefully chosen and market-researched term to parallel the lunatic fringe who deny the Holocaust).  That they believe in "intelligent design," and reject "evolution," which is a truly bizarre attack, given that a President's belief in the origin of the species seems to me to have nothing to do with the powers he or she has as the chief executive.

To those who have studied history, it is worthwhile to recollect that, during the Soviet era, "enemies of the state" were often put away based upon phony charges of insanity.  Rather than sending political dissidents off to prison, they were "diagnosed" as crazy (not sure how you translate "bat shit crazy" into Russian) and put into mental hospitals.

You see - if you "denied" that the status quo wisdom being offered by The Party was the right course, well, that was ipso facto evidence that you must be out of your tree.

I reckon in the 2012, the Democrats will rely on this line not because they are communists (itself a laughable attack one hears from the right), but because they frankly have nothing else to say.

President Obama can hardly run for re-election based on how well he has handled the country.  He cannot point to Texas, which according to an analysis of the data here show the state to have stood apart from the employment collapse of the rest of the country and argue how that disqualifies Governor Perry.  He could try to argue that the governor doesn't really affect job creation, but then the whole argument propping up his tax and spend agenda of never-ending stimulus collapses.

So what's left then is to smear Perry with a lot of emotional, if dubious, attacks of the sort we are now seeing.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Swing and a Miss

The Philadelphia Phillies seem well on their way to another NL East title, largely due to an incredible pitching staff.  (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt).  Their number four starter in his career averages a 16-9 record, with a 3.21 ERA.

That is damned impressive.  One could debate whether there has been a better staff in the past to years (Atlanta, 1995? Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Avery.  The 1971 Orioles boasted four twenty-game winners, though not sure Pat Dobson is the equal of Oswalt.)

What I find most interesting though, is the Phils' set-up man and lefty specialist, Antonio Bastardo.  Aside from the obvious intrigue of his unfortunate sur-name, Bastardo has quietly racked up some unbelievable stats this year.

To wit: in his 50 appearances, covering 46 innings, Bastardo has allowed 18 hits.

That's not a mis-print.  18 hits in 46 innings.

That figure works out to 3.5 hits per nine innings.  The league is hitting .118 this season against him.

To put it into context, Nolan Ryan, the owner of six career no-hitters, in his best season (1972) allowed 166 hits in 284 innings, a rate of 5.26.  Ryan allowed fifty per cent more hits per nine innings.  Oh, and he also tossed in 157 bases on balls, so Ryan - in a great season - allowed 323 baserunners in his 284 innings.

Bastardo has walked 16, so he has allowed 34 baserunners in 48 innings.

Tom Henke was another guy who could come in and simply blow hitters away.  In his best season (1987), The Terminator gave up 62 hits in 94 innings, or 5.94 per nine innings.  Henke walked 25, so his runners per nine innings was better than Ryan's (87 runners in 94 innings), but again, not close to the numbers Bastardo has put up.

And Henke, as a relief pitcher for a team that collapsed, in an epic fashion, received MVP support for his efforts.

It's a relatively small sample size, of course, but the almost complete failure of National League hitters to hit Bastardo is truly remarkable; it's sufficiently low that I wonder, has there ever been a guy who put up seasonal figures like that, tossing a minimum number of innings.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Paul Meier, RIP

Chances are pretty good you've never heard of Paul Meier.  But if you've taken an FDA-approved medication, or purchased life insurance, your life has been affected in a profound way by his work.

This weekend, read the announcement of the passing Dr Meier, who was one of the true giants of mathematical statistics.  In my opinion, his work with Edward L Kaplan (put the two names together, and perhaps if you've trained in stats or clinical research, you may be closer to recognition) has had more impact on clinical research than any other statistician, and perhaps more than any clinician of any other scientific discipline.

In 1958, Drs Kaplan and Meier submitted to the Journal of the American Statistical Association a manuscript titled "Nonparametric estimation from incomplete observations," in which a method for estimating life expectancy and mortality from data including missing or censored observations was outlined.

It's safe to say that there is almost no pharamacological research programme today that does not involve Kaplan-Meier curves.  From cancer survival to outcomes of heart surgery, this single paper is pretty close to fundamental in clinical trial design.

That same year, Dr Meier also authored a paper called "Clinical evaluation of new drugs," which was published in the journal Annual Review of Medicine, in which he argued that randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were essential in establishing the safety and efficacy of new medicines.

It's hard to fathom nowadays that there actually was an argument for assigning to random placebo and treatment arms patients to assess the effectiveness of a potential treatment, but it was quite controversial at the time.

Modern medical research is based upon the RCT, and countless lives have been saved/improved as a result.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Skin in the Game

In the recent roiling of the nation over the ludicrous deficits we face, I came across the following commentary by John Derbyshire at National Review.
The notion that we should all have some “skin in the game” by paying federal income taxes strikes me as profoundly un-conservative, and to be resisted. We have “skin in the game” by virtue of being U.S. citizens. The nation’s misfortunes are our misfortunes. I have never heard that being American requires payment of an annual fee, like a golf club membership.
Mr Derbyshire's post is, as usual, provocative.  He's got a mathematical background, so I am reminded of one of the controversies of the 20th century in mathematics - the so-called "axiom of choice."  To make a long story somewhat less boring, arguments in mathematics are more or less soluble once one accepts a set of axioms from which to begin.

Here, the problem inherent is that Mr Derbyshire assumes as an axiom that the income tax need not exist.  In fact, the income tax is, I would think, a permanent element of our society.  If we could do away with the income tax, I think his argument makes sense.

But given that the income tax exists, and will continue to exist, his argument I think collapses.  A system where 50% plus one of the population do not pay any visible income tax,  where a sizeable chunk get government "services," and where we swim in waters where the message of tax-funded assistance is "compassionate" is ambient - well, such a system is fundamentally ultimately unsustainable.

In economic terms, the perceived demand for something without a perceptible cost is unbounded.  Unlimited.  The comments of the Georgia governor on his state's ratification of the 16th Amendment are instructive:
When asked why his state legislature had ratified, he replied that it was a matter of no importance to Georgians, since nobody in the state made enough to qualify for the income tax.
Thus the real question barking around the edges of Mr Derbyshire's column are, "What limit is there to the tax rates on the minority of citizens who pay them for ever more government freebies?  What do I care if someone else has to pay 35, or 50, or even 90 per cent of his income in taxes if some "essential" programme is at stake."

It's really the root of the divide and rule messages we hear constantly from Mr Obama and his enablers at MSNBC and the New York Times that he ought to let the tax breaks "for the rich" expire to help reduce the deficit, when their own data show that the relative share of the deficit that tax cuts for the $250,000+/$250,000- segments represent are $700BB and $3,100BB.

Those numbers were printed in the Sunday Times this past week in an editorial.  The "middle class" share of the hated "Bush Tax cuts" is more than 80%

It's not about "deficit reduction" at all.  It's about pure power politics.  Period.

Mr Derbyshire is right philosophically that citizenship should not be measured by whether one has economic "skin in the game."  But unfortunately, reality intrudes, and thus precisely that is necessary to keep the nation sustainable.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Incredible Stat of the Day

The Blue Jays have used a pretty motley crew at 3B this season: Edwin Encarnacion (initially, the regular, but his glove work was so bad, it lead people to believe "Encarnacion" must be Spanish for "throwing error.") and Jayson Nix. Nix quickly proved he could neither field nor hit, with a .169 BA, and OPS of .554.

Not quite panicking, RF Jose Bautista has been shifted to the hot corner.

Incredibly, it's NOT the worst in the league. Chone Figgins, before he was benched, put up a .186 BA, and .234 (!!!) slugging pct. He has an incredible OPS of .481.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Green and Red: Not Just for Christmas Anymore

Came across this article in a recent New York Times edition, titled as "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy."  The alpha and omega of the story is that many urban governments in Europe are intentionally adopting policies designed to make it difficult to use a car within their cities.  Apparently, it's part of a conscious effort to discourage the use of cars and steer people towards public transit, walking, and/or bicycle use.

It's all ostensibly part of the so-called green agenda, you see.

European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.

Now, whilst I tend to be pretty right-wing in much of my politics, I here put some distance between myself and many of my fellow-travellers, in that I accept the science that indicates that climate change is real, and that there is a very, very good chance that human activity is at the least a significant factor.

I believe that the goal of reducing pollution is a good one, and I support improving the quality of life in our cities.  People should make the effort to walk more for their own health, and the more people on buses, trains, and other public transport, generally, the better.

But this story indicates to me a couple of things.

First, the "green movement" in no small part mixes significant amounts of red into the tint; and by that, I mean much of what it is attempting to accomplish is less about the environment, and more about giving government more control over our choices and behaviour.
As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, (Zurich's) city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
In the San Francisco Bay area, the city of Menlo Park has for decades used similar thinking to hobble traffic flow and block development.

Second, I live near New York City, where automobile transport is essentially impossible, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying for some time to implement "congestion pricing" to drive up the cost of bringing a car into Manhattan (note: it's ONLY Manhattan, and ONLY upon entering Manhattan, so if you live in an expensive converted loft in TriBeCa, the toll would not apply to you).  We also recently returned from London, where just such a scheme already exists.

I wonder if there is a somewhat subtle subtext here about turning urban centres such as Central London or Manhattan into sorts of Disneylands for self-selected urbane elites.

Put simply, as it becomes increasingly difficult to get into and around city centres (whether to work, shop, visit a cultural attraction), there will be increasing pressure on the housing stock in or near these attractions.  I am sure that there are many, many people who would LOVE to ride a bicycle to their jobs in lower Manhattan or walk around shopping in Knightsbridge.  If you happen to be Leonardo Di Caprio and can afford to live in TriBeCa, that's an option.  If you're a mid-level manager, it's not.

No; you will have to ride two hours from your affordable suburban home.

Walkable cities is a terrific idea in theory.  But far too often, putatively "enviromental" restrictions such as zoning laws are pushed quietly behind the scenes by people who own land and property that will be made more valuable.  It's a sort of perverse win-win: the government gets more control.  The connected get more money.  And the elite get to filter out the people from their urban playgrounds whom they deem as undesirable.

All for the good "of the planet," of course.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

300: A Good Batting Average

The oddball season for the Toronto Blue Jays continues.  I wrote in this post a few weeks ago that the Blue Jays were (at the time) 3-13 during day games, and 12-6 at night.

The Jays yesterday lost their fourth straight in the final game of a three game sweep in Atlanta (by the Braves).  It was, no surprise, a day game.  (As an aside, the Blue Jays amassed a total of 2, 5, and 5 hits, a 12 for 93 performance in the series; that's a nice .129 batting average, prompting number one starter Ricky Romero to pop off).

The Jays are now 9-21 during day games.  That's a .300 winning percentage, not bad for a batting average, but would, over the course of a 162 game season, approach the record for the worst in modern history.

Toronto continues to essentially appear to be two different teams between day and night, posting a 27-18 record during night games (which includes two of the three losses in Atlanta).  That computes as a .600 winning percentage.

If the Sunlight Blue Jays were to compete in a division with the Moonlight Jays, the standings would look like this:

                  W    L     PCT   GB
Moonlight    27 - 18 (.600)    --
Sunlight        9 - 21 (.300)   10.5

Over the course of two hypothetical 162 game seasonS, the Moonies would finish with a 97-65 record, perhaps competing for the AL East crown.  The daytime bunch would finish with a 48-114 record, a shocking 49 games behind.

Neither team would hit with runners in scoring position, so at least that would remain stable.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Stanley Cup to Remain Hostage in US

Boston blanked Vancouver last night, 4-0, to wrap up the Stanley Cup and deny its return to Canada for at least another year.  Though it's Boston (ick), at the least, this year it was one of the Original Six, and not a team in, say, South Florida who got to hoist the Cup this year.  Still, as a Canadian, it was a sad outcome.

Some reflections on the playoffs:

  1. The seven game series really was among the most lop-sided ever.  Vancouver won its three games 1-0, 3-2 (OT), and 1-0.  Three wins by a total of three goals, with one of the games ending in regulation at a tie.  The Bruins won their four games 8-1, 4-0, 5-2, and 4-0.  That adds up to a 21-3 goal differential.  It really wasn't close, and Tim Thomas was remarkable.
  2. It was ironic that, on the day of Game 7, an ESPN headline reported that the Boston PD were adding additional police offers in anticipation of potential trouble should the Bruins win and the Boston revellers get out of control.  History was on their side, given the violence that followed the Red Sox World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, which resulted in the killing of a student (2004) and numerous fires and overturned vehicles (2007).  This year, it was the fans in Vancouver who burned cars, smashed windows, and looted, perhaps undermining the generally accepted wisdom of Canadians as orderly and polite.
  3. It was sort of a nice touch to see Marc Recchi get one more championship and get to retire on a high note.  Recchi is older than I am by a couple of years, and I honestly had thought he had hung up his skates already.  My five year old has this winter started to learn to play (which at this point, largely means learning how to skate around with a stick, and to keep his focus on the puck and not randomly wobble around the ice), and I had told him about "The Wrecking Ball," a nickname that has obvious appeal to a five year old boy.  Of course, in the world of five year old hockey, they're all more or less "Wrecking Balls" on the ice - meaning that one will crash into the rest, usually clustered in front of the goal, and knock the lot over like an old building that is being razed.
  4. The 2010-2011 season marks the 44th consecutive year that the Maple Leafs have not appeared in the Cup finals, which is by far the longest streak in the NHL.  Better still, the team did not even make the playoffs, extending that streak to 7 seasons.  The Leafs' last appearance in the Cup finals was the year my parents got married (1967)....

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Statistician Raises the White Flag

I love baseball.  I enjoy numbers.  I make my living with mathematics.

So naturally, combining the three seems a natural interest.  But there is an old saw that goes something to the effect of the following apocryphal story:
Two Hollywood producers are brainstorming over a new movie idea.  One says to the other, "Hey; everyone likes Abe Lincoln.  Everyone likes dogs.  Everyone is interested is fascinated by movies about doctors.  So let's make a movie about Abe Lincoln's doctor's dog."
But like the story above, the three often make for a nauseating combination.  And as a statistician who watches baseball games wherein we are inundated with cobbled-together and often meaningless meta-statistics, I raise the white flag.

Enough.  No more stats about how a hitter hit against a pitcher in a certain count in a certain inning, in road games, during a full moon.

Last night, the Toronto Blue Jays beat Baltimore, 6-5 in 11 innings.  (As an aside, thank God for the Baltimore Orioles, who year in, year out can be counted on to provide soft-landing cushion to keep the Jays out of the AL East cellar).  The game ended when Adam Lind hit a homer to lead off the 11th.

Sure enough; the ESPN laughing boys chattered about how Lind had hit a "walk off home run" to end the game.  The ubiquitous use of cliches like this are chronicled in a rant here about LeBron James over at National Review, but needless to say, this term (like many others) is well past its sell-by date.

But the folks at ESPN are not satisfied just to bore us to death with idiotic cliches like "Walk Off" this, that, or the other, the headline today for the game blared:

"Lind Ties Jays Record."

Hmmmm... The team is in the midst of its annual battle with mediocrity, so that's not the likely "record" they speak of.  Lind's homer was his 12th of the season, and sad as the team has been of late, that's not close to any sort of significance.

So, what 'record' did he tie, exactly?

Well, it's the third "walk off" homer of his career.

Boy, I wish I had been at the game and saved the ticket stub for posterity.  I could show my grandson in 40 years the evidence that I had been in attendance the night Adam Lind tied the team record for "walk off home runs."

It's a 'record' he now shares with Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Joe Carter, Carlos Delgado, and Vernon Wells.

I wonder if Cooperstown want the ball?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dr Strangeglove: The 2011 Remake

Toronto beat the Yankees last night at Yankee Stadium to even the season series at three and three.  It was an unremarkable game, really; final score 7-3.

That's not to say it was totally uneventful.  Toronto third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (I don't speak Spanish, but it looks remarkably like a translation of "Second Coming of Butch Hobson") made his 11th error, booting a ground ball.

Encarnacion has split his time between third and first base, starting 16 games at the hot corner.  In those 16 games, he's committed eight errors.  For those whose maths skills are roughly the equivalent of E-squared's fielding skills, that's an error every other game, a remarkable feat.  The most errors committed at third in the past 100 years is 43, a record that EE would not only break over a full season, but bury the pieces.

How bad is EE's glovework?

ESPN had a list of other Strangegloves who have played third (e.g., Butch Hobson, who made the aforementioned 43 miscues), and their abysmal fielding percentages were generally between .850 and .899.

It's awful to have a FA below .900 (meaning you boot one of every ten plays).

Encarnacion's fielding average this hear is below .800 (.784).  This means that one of every five balls hit to Encarnacion results in an error.

That's not particularly good for someone playing in Pony League.

Oh - for good measure, E-squared has made three errors in 60 innings of play at first base.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Mr Toad's VERY Wild Ride

Just returned from a couple of days' vacation in Orlando, Florida.  The heat, humidity, and infestation of "love bugs" (you've really got to go to Florida in May to believe it) to the side, it was a great trip.  It was a fun experience taking our five year old to Disney World.

Found one particular thing quite disturbing, however.  In the Orlando Magic Kingdom park at WDW, it seems that "Mr Toad's Wild Ride" is now gone, if not forgotten; replaced, as it were, by the "Winnie the Pooh" ride.  Now, "Winnie the Pooh" is a fine child's story, and Alastair greatly enjoyed the ride (he is still humming the tune from "Heffalumps and Woozles").

But did they HAVE to get rid of the iconic Mr Toad?

And for those wondering, Mr Toad is, in fact, not TRULY gone.  We were waiting in the queue for one of the other rides (itself part of the real Disney experience) and spotted him.

If you're in WDW in the near future, go to the Haunted Mansion ride.  Just outside, there is a pretend "Pet Cemetery" with odd pet headstones (a bird, a snake, a frooey-frilly poodle).  Look at the back left of the graveyard.

Yep.  The Final Resting Place for Mr Toad can be seen.  It seems that, whenever Mr Toad was closed, they took the statue of the old gent from the ride and put it neatly in the back of the cemetery.

I guess that he took one of the turns in the ride just a bit too wildly.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Weird Stats of the Day

Toronto, in its quest to extend a streak of futility to two decades (that is to say, they have not only not won the World Series, nor even appeared in the playoffs in 18 years, they've not even really nodded at contending) lost again yesterday afternoon to the Detroit Tigers.

This loss followed a previous 9-0 defeat on Saturday afternoon in a game that, aside from the no-hitter (and near perfect game - a single walk spoiled that) by Detroit's Justin Verlander, was pretty unremarkable.

Sunday's loss dropped the Jays to 3-13 thus far in day baseball games (source: ESPN.COM).  Now, the Blue Jays are 15-19 over-all, which means that the team is 12-6 in night baseball games.

Put those two records side by side:

Day:    3-13
Night: 12-6

That's a very odd juxtaposition, don't you think?

During the day, the Blue Jays as a team are hitting a robust .204, the worst in the American League (the league average is .253).  At night, the team hits .282, which is not only the highest in the American League, but is so by a fairly healthy margin (Cleveland is second, at .268).  For what it's worth, the AL batting average is, collectively, .246 at night.

The pattern is not repeated for Toronto pitching, who yield a .240 BA during day games, and .239 at night.

So not only do the Jays see widely different fortunes in their day/night splits - basically going from the 1968 Washington Senators to the 1927 Yankees in a sense - but have exactly the opposite pattern the rest of the league shows.

It's generally thought to be easier to hit during the day, when natural light makes it easier to see the ball, so I'm curious as to just why this might be.

A second fun stat is that yesterday's losing pitcher, Jo-Jo Reyes, has now failed to win a game in 25 consecutive starts, spanning back nearly three years (his last win was in June 2008, with Atlanta).  In that span of games, Reyes has gone 0-12, with an ERA of 6.11.

In my lifetime, only two pitchers have gone that long without a win.  Anthony Young went 27 starts between 1990 and 1992 without a win (0-17), and Matt Keough set the pace with zero wins in 28 straight starts from 1977-1978 (0-18).

Keough, of course, was famous for setting the standard for futility in the modern era, with a 2-17 W/L record in 1979.

We may see history of a sort made this year - if Reyes, who is "out of options" keeps going out to the mound.

Stay tuned.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Somewhere, Over a Barrel

The price of oil (and therefore, gasoline and just about everything else) is up. That's not so good.  But I really had to laugh at the hypocrisy of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Land of Make Believe), who is now calling for hearings into price spikes and "speculation."

In the past,  I thought that fossil fuel consumption was "bad." Senator Boxer has been amongst the loudest voices calling for "carbon taxes," and has been a leader in searching for ways to curb the use of fossil fuels.

What does the esteemed Senator from California THINK would happen if her taxes were put in place??? Is she really that ignorant of economics?  It seems that, if gasoline prices go to $4 or $5, or $8 per gallon (Think: European-style pricing) due to taxes, that's A-OK.  But if market forces somehow result in high prices?  Well, that just won't do.

It's one thing if "The Government" get the money to play around with.  But private individuals?  Ms. Boxer and the nanny-staters have deemed profits to be unsuitable for your use... you're such children, after all.

I truly suspect in this case that Senator Boxer really is dumb, and not just trying to score cheap, political points.

Apparently, in a speech on 15th July 2008 (the last time we saw large price spikes), her mathematical ignorance was on full display, when she offered that "8 years, divided by 2 Oil Men in the White House, equals $4 per gallon."

WELLLL.... now that the White House has two decidedly "non-oil men" (a "community organiser" and whatever it is the Biden was doing when not getting bad hair replacement surgery), how does Ms. Boxer's ratio hold up? 

Eight years divided by two "oil" men = $4 per gallon gasoline.

Two years divided by zero oil men equals... Uh-oh...

Friday, 1 April 2011

Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak (or, at Least to Read and Write?)

The above question was posed a century ago , first in Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion," and later, in the more well-known adaptation, "My Fair Lady."

The question is followed up by the observation:

Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
And Hebrews learn it backwards, which is absolutely frightening.
But use proper English you're regarded as a freak.
Oh, WHY can't the English learn to speak?"

It turns out, not only are the English unable to speak, a good lot of them can't read or write, either.  According to a recent article by U.K. Secretary for Education Michael Gove, writing in the Daily Telegraph, 63% of white, working-class English children could neither read nor write properly.

His solution is to try to encourage a culture of reading, which of course, I am all for.  It's a terrific idea that children should carry around books rather than tweeting, bleating, blinking gadgets.

I do, however, find it somewhat amusing Mr Gove's observations that similar U.S. youngsters have an inculcated love of books and reading, and that, for once, someone is wishing the youth of his nation be more like Americans:

Visiting America last month, I was struck by the way a culture of reading is instilled in every child at the earliest possible age, even in schools serving the poorest pupils. In Washington DC, a group of children stopped, in the middle of an engineering project, to tell me about their favourite novels

All I can say to that is, "Huh?"

Shaw, also in "Pygmalion" commented, on the use of English, that "well, in America, they haven't used it for years."

Shaw once famously quipped that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language.  Here, I might suggest to Michael Gove that that separation has been replaced by a common intellectual sloth and laziness.  In the abandonment of proper diction and grammar, I would suggest that that gap has closed, though who has raced to close it is subject to debate.

Hint: In my opinion, it's not that Americans have run to catch UP...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Here There Be Dragons

The full data from the 2010 U.S. Census are starting to come out in spits and spurts.  These publications pique my interests both as a mathematician and a curious observer of political trends.  That our national population is now greater than 300 million, and that what accounts for the "typical" face has changed since 1965, and is accelerating should surprise no one other than, say the residents of a sketch comedy skit from 20 years ago who pronounced to be shocked at the killing of President Kennedy (on the 25th anniversary of the event) because they "were watching another channel."

No; one has to delve a bit further down into the data to start coming across little nuggets of truly novel information.  One such analysis of U.S. Census data projected that the population of this country would grow to nearly 400 million, and that roughly eight of nine new residents (86% of the growth) will be due to immigration trends post-1992.  The plot below puts it somewhat more graphically:

I haven't run or attempted to validate the models, but assuming this chart is even half correct, this trend is likely to have consequences.  Now obviously, the creator of the plot has shaded the impact significantly with a notorious trick - the vertical axis does not start at zero, giving the somewhat misleading impression that the "native" population will be dwarfed by newcomers, when in fact, the TOTAL population of pre-1970s Americans will remain roughly two out of three (250 of 400 million), but the point is made.

As I once read, it's useless to pretend it won't happen, so let's get realistic an assessing what the outcome in a more or less sanguine way when it does.  Some changes will be good (think of all the new dining options we will have access to).  Some less so.  But it seems almost axiomatic that the very nature of what it means to be "American" will be different if these data and models are true.

The U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron got into a bit of hot water recently, when he commented somewhat disparagingly on the impacts of mass immigration and multi-culturalism.  His remarks were chided from a somewhat ironic angle by National Review writer John Derbyshire, in a column he wrote entitled "Muscular Liberalism".:

So Britain is now no longer the home of the British — the people Winston Churchill, in that shamefully reactionary way of his, called "The Island Race." It is just another "proposition nation" — just a place, really.

There would of course be no need for David Cameron to threaten his voters with "muscular liberalism" (it sounds even bossier and more arrogant than regular liberalism) nor to tell them that they can only "belong here" if they sign up to a list of poli-sci propositions (if a native of Madagascar assents to those propositions does he thereby become British? if a Briton declines to assent to them, will he lose his citizenship?) — there would be no need for any of this vapid blather if Cameron and his predecessors had not opened up their country to settlement by millions of aliens from radically different cultures.

Generally, I enjoy Mr Derbyshire's writing, and agree with a lot that he has to say.  But the conclusions he draws from his conjecture seem to be...well, wrong.  I do agree with the basis of his musings - namely that in England, there has been an erosion of manners, a rise in the churlish hooliganism in the northern towns.  People are just less respectful and more disorderly.  Crime and welfare and lone-parent households have risen.  Basically, all of the things Americans ascribe to the stereotypical Englishman in a starched collar, rain jacket, and bowler hat with his stiff-upper lip have gone, to be replaced by the somewhat tepid soup of "Cool Britannia" mixed with a generous seasoning of general bumptiousness.

I would suggest to Mr Derbyshire that the loss of these cultural norms was orchestrated not by the immigrants from Pakistan, but rather, was fostered by the likes of the idle sons of the bored and wealthy, like the son of Pink Floyd front man David Gilmour, who was recently arrested dangling from the Cenotaph.  The growing confidence of immigrant minorities in the bravado of their own culture is the predictable consequence of the shrinking understanding and pride in what it meant to be English, not the cause of it.

I don't personally like the frankly ironic idea of "muscular liberalism," but I WOULD suggest that the answer to Mr Derbyshire is that what it means to be "British" (or more directly here, "American") is an acceptance in the ideals that make up the society, not where you were born.  More directly, to answer his question "if a native of Madagascar assents to those propositions does he thereby become British?" I would reply, simply, yes.  A nation is made up of ideas, not genetics.  It's made of a common understanding of culture and values, not ancestry and parentage.

How else to explain the famous 1967 quip of the U.K. Foreign Secretary that Lew Kwan Yew (prime minister of Singapore) was "the best bloody Englishman east of Suez?"

In the more proximate discussion on what it means to be American, I would say simply that those who wish to come to our shores, embrace the ideals of our country (life, liberty, respect for the rule of law, self-reliance, and the premise that we are all created equal), then that is an American, much more so than having the good fortune of having been born here.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Big Mac Falafal, and a Side of Fries

I was today reading the comments of one of my favourite "bloggers," Joanne Jacobs, who writes mostly about education and education issues.  (Jacobs for many years wrote a column for the San Jose Mercury News, which was the newspaper in San Jose, California, where I lived at the time).

As usual, Jacobs's musings provided an interesting potpourri of observations about the state of schools and education more broadly.  I was struck by an article she had found, published initially in the Financial Times by the renowned writer Katie Roiphe.  Roiphe, it seems, is now in the midst of the angst-ridden battle that afflicts people of a certain class on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Whilst the bulk of us perched more precariously on the edge of what the playwright Sam Shephard called "the striving class" concern ourselves with filling out brackets for the annual NCAA tournament (including people who pose as working class heroes, only with expensive, designer clothes, Secret Service protection, and access to a 747 jet at whim), a different sort of "selection" drama unfolds for people in Roiphe's circle.

Namely, the annual "which exclusive private school will my kid get into?"  Oh, and we're not talking about Harvard.  Or Andover.

Nope - this is about PRESCHOOL.

In Roiphe's own words:
When T.S. Eliot wrote about the cruelest month "mixing memory and desire", he might also have had in mind that this is the season of school admissions in New York City. So as the sooty piles of snow melt into gray puddles, parents obsess over the letters they will and won't receive from the school that will or won't confer on their radiant progeny the blessing of its approval.
You see, the ultimate fate of little Aiden or Sasha or Maya (or some other vaguely bohemian-sounding name - John just won't do) hangs in the balance, and will ultimately be determined, by the age of five.

Now, mocking  the foibles of our cultural betters has been around at least since the first time a school boy set down Pride and Prejudice in a fit of boredom and stared out the window, so there's nothing new here.  But what I found funniest was Roiphe's keen insight that the lot of limousine liberals want to impute to themselves a certain hip, diverse, but not-at-all-concerned-with-money-coolness, and the best means by which to do this is by sending the precious family dauphin to just the right school.

It HAS to have diversity, of course.  But for heaven's sake, not TOO much diversity.  Again, to quote Roiphe
These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is "diverse". The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, "diverse", thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere "diverse", would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn't require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, they advertise soup├žon of diversity...
Basically put, the "diversity" in places like the sort Roiphe and others chase after the way an aging debutante in a Tennessee Williams play pursues gentlemen callers of shady means is rather like the side salads places like Wendy's offer to make us feel less guilty when ordering a Triple and a Frosty.