Friday, 18 April 2014

Collision of the Dismal Science and Reality-Denying People

As the name of this site (SJREFUGEE - that is, San Jose Refugee) implies, my family and I are, shall we say, escapees from the San Francisco Bay Area.  We're of course not 'refugees' in the traditional sense of the word.  We chose to leave central California a while back for a number of issues, none of which was related to storm disasters or political persecution.  And we live a pretty nice life these days in Paris, which is one of the truly great cities of the world.

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 6.04.05 PM

But having lived the bulk of my adult life in the Bay Area, and still owning a property in Sunnyvale (it's a rental, and a hedge for our retirement), I try to keep up on the goings-on, out there.

By now, most everyone with even the slightest connection to the Valley, or to Tech, knows about the infamous "Google Buses" that have been the target of various attacks in San Francisco.  It's a backlash against the economic forces currently roiling the city.  

This article, published in the online journal TechNet, really encapsulates better than any I have ever seen the situation.  It's strongly San Francisco-centric, but an excellent synopsis.

The middle and late '00s, marked by the economic world-wide slow-down were not particularly kind to the Bay Area, with significantly worse unemployment compared to the rest of the US, and commensurate out-migration.  California more broadly saw a massive wave of people leaving for less costly places like Texas or Nevada.  

Of course, California and the Bay Area in particular have long been extremely expensive places to live.  Because buildable land is one thing that cannot be "made" in any significant quantities, the laws of supply and demand are pretty much iron-clad.  When our family first arrived in Los Angeles about 40 years ago, the property boom had really just started to take off.  But a family could reasonably expect to own a home on a middle-class salary.

All that had changed by the time I was out of school and working.  In 1994, when I took my final degrees and looked for my first market-rate housing, I was shocked by the prices of what were described as "entry-level" homes.  A tiny, 40 year old shack in Palo Alto, California (I was a Stanford student) that could be kindly described as "mid-century shabby chic" at that time would fetch between three and four hundred thousand dollars.  Using the old rules - where one's mortgage should not be more than three times one's annual salary, you can easily see why the Bay Area was near the bottom of the rankings in the US of home affordability.  With the great recession, home prices had fallen, significantly, and possibly for the first time in my lifetime.

Fast forward further, and there is today apparently another "tech bubble" growing in and around Silicon Valley, and housing prices are climbing again at dizzying rates.  That shabby chic Palo Alto rancher is now easily well north of a million dollars.  The Facebook Boom is of course good news in some respects for Bay Area governments, who finally can stop cutting services as payroll and property taxes rebound.  It's also good for tech workers and their adjacents.  But it's not universally good, and the down-side includes the pricing-out of many middle income residents, some of whom are relatively long-time residents.  This is particularly acute in San Francisco, which 10 years ago was not really part of the "tech" economy in any real way.

All of that has changed, with demographic changes that are not well-documented (for example, the famous work of sociologist Richard Florida, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class highlights stark differences between Gen-Xers and baby boomers, and the so-called "millennials".  My generation (decidedly Gen-X) preffered quieter, suburban settings.  A single family home with some land.  The millennials reject that, preferring the new urbanism of "walkable" neighbourhoods (I suspect, in no small part driven by a desire to avoid cooking their own food, and a greater desire to be able to go out on a Friday or Saturday, or perhaps even Thursday - the "new" Friday night, have a bit too much to drink, and be able to walk home without risking a DUI or worse) and density.  Hence, the movement of companies from the actual Valley to former warehouses and other artefacts of the old economy in San Francisco (e.g., Twitter).

How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)
An Anti-Yahooligan, Astride His Prey
This makes a tight situation even more acute.  It used to be that participants in the new digital economy had to live in the Bay Area.  They now have to live in San Francisco.  When 8 million people desire to live in a three or four county-area, that's a problem.  When they want to live in a single city that is less than 50 square miles, that is a crisis.

There is a lot of teeth-gnashing going on, as people in San Francisco and beyond confront the following realities.

It is not possible to have, simultaneously, strong enironmental laws that severely restrict housing, activist preservationists who demand that the aesthetics of neighbourhoods remain unchanged, massive increases (even moderate ones) of people from other places, liberal immigration policies, and afforable housing that protects people of modest means.

You can have some of them, but to demand all is to square the proverbial circle.

So the result is people, who on virtually any other day would be championing ride sharing, attacking buses that shuttle workers from San Francisco to Mountain View.  You have people who on the one hand demand amnesty for illegal immigrants and push for softer immigration laws that will bring ever more people demanding that rules be put in place to ensure that newcomers cannot come to San Francisco.  

An interesting side effect - law of unintended consequences, if you will, is that 50 years of strict zoning (ostensibly for environmental reasons) in San Francisco have turned the city into one of the least "diverse" (measured by black and Latino residents) in the Bay Area.  In 1970, one in eight San Franciscans (13%) was black.  In 2010, that figure had been cut by more than half.  Similarly for Latinos, in 1970, about one in six (12%) was Hispanic.  That figure has grown of course to 15% in 2010, but pales in comparison to the state of California.  San Francisco added about 100,000 residents in the past 40 years, which means that it has added 36,000 Latino residents (using some basic algebra, the numbers have grown from 84,000 to about 120,000 in 40 years).

In California, the corresponding figures: total population in 1970 of 20 million.  Total in 2010 of 37 million.  In 1970, Hispanics made up about 12% of the total California population - an almost exact match for the city.  That amounts to about 2.4 million.  The current Hispanic population in California is now 13 million or so, more than one in three.  

So, over 40 years, the state has added about 10 million Latinos, an increase of 400 or so percent.  The city of San Francisco has seen its Latino population grow by 43%.  An order of magnitude less.

Thus, San Francisco's ostensibly "liberal" housing policies have resulted in a sort of quasi-ethnic cleansing.

One thing I find most interesting is the arguments one hears about how newcomers (and I am strongly suspicious that what they really mean are tech heads from Illinois, not border jumpers) are pushing out long-term residents, fundamentally changing the character of the city.  I suppose that this is true.  When I was living in San Jose, the "Metreon" (a chimeric shopping/entertainment/dining venture) opened just south of Market Street.  The area had long been somewhat dodgy.  Now, with the addition of Pacific Bell Park (or whatever it's called these days), the entire South of Market area, including large parts of the so-called "Mission District" - long home to Mexican and other Latin American residents - has changed entirely, with gleaming new apartments, "artisan" stores and restaurants with "hyper local" sourcing, and coffee shops proudly boasting of "fair trade" products.  

The latter is extremely ironic.

Many activists are demanding an end, and for the city to act to preserve the makeup of San Francisco.

It's a bit to me like conservatives elsewhere who cling to visions of what the country was like in 1950; trying to preserve in legislative amber some idealised view.  No one stops to ask who the people now demanding protection replaced.  For example, the Castro district, now the ostensible cultural centre of San Francisco's gay culture, at one point was the home to a socially conservative, blue-collar Irish Catholic community.  That is California - waves of newcomers push out to some degree their antecedents.  One of the little ironies of the TechNet piece is a focus on a "long-term" renter who is losing his home due to rent rises - who himself is an immigrant from China.  I suspect that few of the most timourous activists have roots in San Francisco going back even one generation.

They all replaced somebody for the most part.  So, who decides at what point in time to apply the amber?  People are very happy to preserve the status quo, but only after they've got their piece.  Wearing fair-trade hemp shirts does not innoculate you from human nature.

Solutions are not going to be easy, as the TechNet piece points out.  And people in San Francsico I suspect are finding out that the laws of demand, supply, and price are not subject to debate any more than gravity.

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.